This summer's movie season has had a lot of movies that audiences have been anticipating for months: the newest Star Trek; the Christopher Nolan-produced Superman movie; Iron Man 3, picking up from where last year's The Avengers left off. Early trailers for movies are often teasers, which do little more than tell fans that some movie is in the works. But as the release date approaches, far from teasing the viewers with a poverty of information, these trailers have a problem with TMI, as they give away key moments of the plot and spoil the experience for many viewers.

These meanings for tease and spoil have been around for decades, but starting in the mid-1990s, both words have developed meaning variants that are becoming more common in discussions of movies, TV shows, video games, and novels. Look at these examples, and see if you can spot the novelty.

This passage from 2012 refers to a teaser for The Avengers that appeared at the end of Captain America a year earlier, after the credits. (Teasers like this one, by the way, have become a tradition in movies from Marvel Studios.)

And so when The Avengers was teased at the end of Cap[tain America] and then in many subsequent trailers and TV spots, people knew these characters, knew they were linked, and fan or non-fan, some excitement had to be felt by that kind of unification. (link)

This next one is also from 2012, regarding an interview with an actor from Breaking Dawn in the Twilight series:

Recently, MTV News chatted it up with the lovely … Ashley Greene and she took the time to tease a special ending credit scene that will be featured in Breaking Dawn part 2. She really acted like she didn't know too much about it, but did confirm it exists…. (link)

Now for a couple with spoil. First, here's one from a 2009 discussion of whether there is a statute of limitations on spoilers:

I personally can't stand spoilers. ... I'm that person in the movie theater who looks away and closes my ears for the trailer of a movie I'm excited about. ... There are entire websites that I have stopped visiting because they unexpectedly spoiled me one too many times. (link)

And from 2013, a complaint about an article that purported to be about spoilers for the video game The Last of Us. The writer was dismayed to find out that instead of talking about the spoilers, the article actually "listed ALL the spoilers that were leaked." The writer titled the post:

It happened... I got spoiled ='( (link)

...and included an unhappy emoticon with a single tear running down its cheek. You can tell from the context that these writers don't mean that they were humored and overindulged to the detriment of their character (though that meaning is certainly alive and well these days); they mean that their enjoyment of a movie or video game has been lessened.

In earlier years, you teased people and spoiled things. But as these examples show, you can now tease things and spoil people. What happened?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb tease goes back to the Old English tĒ½san, which meant to pull or tear apart, a meaning that still exists when you talk about teasing wool, or when a scientist talks figuratively of "teasing apart" several interacting factors to understand some network of causes and effects. But that doesn't seem to have much to do with providing just a little bit of information in order to pique interest in something. The path toward that meaning seems to begin in the 1620s, with the OED's first citation for tease in the sense of annoying someone, or "to disturb by persistent petty annoyance, out of mere mischief or sport." One way of doing this is to pretend to offer something and then take it away; to tantalize, in other words. Depending on your frame of mind, this could be truly annoying, or merely challenging and exciting. This is the meaning that's active in compounds such as brain teaser, attested from 1850 as brain teazers in the OED, and from 1828 in the form brain-teazing.

Near the beginning of the 20th century, tease developed a few more specific "tantalize" meanings. There are the sex-related ones in words such as strip-tease (attested from the 1930s in the OED) and just plain teaser for "a woman who arouses but evades amorous advances" (from 1895, shortened to tease in the 1970s). From 1916, the OED has teaser in theatre jargon referring to a horizontal strip of scenery intended to block the audience's view into the ropes and catwalks above the stage. (Similar vertical strips on the sides are called tormentors.) More relevant to our story, the noun teaser for a kind of advertisement dates from the same era; the earliest attestation I have found (via Google Books) is on page 80 of the January 1917 issue of The Rotarian:

Later, on November 17th, after much advertising of a "teaser" kind, the Club was confronted with the whole Toledo Advertising Club as our entertainer. (link)

The earliest example of teaser trailer I have found is from an issue of The Film Daily in 1939:

Campaign started with teaser trailer three weeks in advance … "Loew's Is Expecting Twins" was the slogan. (link)

In all that time, though, the object of teasing was always understood to be a person. It's only in the mid-1990s that the meaning of tease shifted enough to allow the object to be the thing that you tease someone with. Here's a quotation from a 1995 thread on a Usenet newsgroup (available through Google Groups) for pro wrestling fans, which contains two examples of this usage of tease:

"The Informer" teased the return of a "mystery man" absent from the WWF for roughly a decade…. He also teased the appearance of a "familiar face" who would be making his WWF debut…. (link)

Other examples to be found in the Google Groups archives mention songs teased in concerts when the performers play just a few licks, scenes teased in movie trailers that don't show up in the actual movie, and upcoming comic book issues that are teased in current issues.

Interestingly, this meaning expansion for tease took place at more or less the same time as the similar meaning expansion for spoil. As the objects of tease shifted from exclusively people to both people and things, the objects of spoil shifted from just things to both things and people.

Spoil, a borrowing from French, entered English during the Middle English period, and originally had several meanings related to robbery and plunder, which still exist in the noun spoils. The relevant meaning for us is number 11 in the OED, "to destroy (entirely or partially) the good, valuable, or effective properties or qualities of" something. This meaning dates from the mid-16th century. The "overindulge" meaning developed in the following century, but the modern, entertainment-related meaning of spoil had to wait for the development of mass media to make its appearance. The OED's draft additions of 2007 have 1971 as the earliest date for spoiler related to movies, books, and the like, in an article from National Lampoon. The earliest spoiler alert I've found is from 1982, in a posting to a Usenet newsgroup devoted to movies. The writer uses the phrase before commenting on what happens to Spock in The Wrath of Khan, which I won't spoil for you.

My earliest attestations for spoiling people by giving too much information come in 1996, the year after my earliest find for teasing things by giving too little information. The earliest one is from April of that year, but the one I like the best is from May, with both got spoiled and being spoiled in a single passage regarding an article about the TV show Babylon 5:

I'm sorry you got spoiled, but I read the same article and thanks to the warning (printed in red and a larger font, what more do you want? ROT 13?) I managed to avoid being spoiled at all. (link)

Both teasing and spoiling require two things. Three things, if we count the person doing the teasing or spoiling. In addition to the teaser or spoiler, there has to be an abstract thing to give too little or too much information about, and a person to react to the information revealed. Depending on whether you're focusing on the thing or the person, it may be more convenient to have one or the other as the primary object of the verb. As a result, the verbs tease and spoil have each strayed a bit further from their original meanings, while converging in their current meaning and usage.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 20th 2013, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Neal - good article!

Maybe some time you'll address the question of how these things came to be called trailers in the first place! Trailers and trails used to follow behind things, and still do: a car pulls a trailer, a slow hiker trails behind the group, Hansel and Gretel left a trail of breadcrumbs, bloodhounds follow the trail of a criminal, etc. And scenes from coming attractions were called previews, which makes sense: we see them before we see the movie. When we call them trailers, aren't we putting the cart before the horse?

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday June 20th 2013, 3:20 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Neal. A lot of original research for just us chickens on the VT.

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