On the website Technologizer, Harry McCracken has provided a lovingly detailed history of the term fanboy, as it traveled from the world of underground comics to become "the tech world's favorite put-down." It got me thinking about the development of the mnemonic aid FANBOYS, which every English composition teacher knows is an acronym for the coordinating conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.

Fanboy got some attention in 2008 when it made the cut for inclusion in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. McCracken takes issue with MWCD's definition: "boy who is an enthusiastic devotee, such as of comics or movies." "The boy part isn't a reference to youth," McCracken writes. "More often, it's a taunt, suggesting that the person in question is goofy and childish. Fanboys come in all ages, and fanboyism isn't the exclusive preserve of males."

He also thinks that the Oxford English Dictionary "blew it" by including a first citation from 1919 about "fan boys" at a baseball game, and then only giving its more contemporary meaning from 1985. (See commenter Jack for a good rebuttal of the criticism.) The OED's Science Fiction Citations project did call for additional "interdatings" to fill the gap, and McCracken's research fits the bill quite nicely. He traces the modern usage to a 1973 underground zine called Fanboy, created by the cartoonists Jay Lynch and Glenn Bray. Lynch was inspired by "Funboy" from an earlier humor magazine that he worked on, and he mashed it up with fan to describe obsessive comic-book devotees. It was picked up by others in the underground comics world in the '70s and '80s, but it didn't make the crossover to techies until the mid-'90s.

Absent from McCracken's investigation is the parallel life of FANBOY(S) as a language-arts mnemonic. As Karl Hagen explains on his Polysyllabic blog, the history of the acronym can be traced as far back as 1951. In the third edition of Reed Smith et al.'s Learning to Write published that year, the words for, and, nor, but, or, and yet are listed: "Because the first letters of these words arranged in this order make fanboy, the chief co-ordinating conjunctions are sometimes called the fanboy words." In a 1962 article in The English Journal, J.C. Gray offers the same tip: "Incidentally, if the student is hazy about the coordinating conjunctions, the instructor may use the standard device of arranging them in the order — for, and, nor, but, or, yet — and pointing out that the initials of the conjunctions so arranged spell out the mnemonic word, 'fanboy.'" Both of these sources suggest the mnemonic had already been around for a while.

The acronym FANBOY got expanded to FANBOYS with the addition of so to the list of so-called coordinating conjunctions. Hagen finds this version from 1970 (in Gertrude B. Corcoran's Language Arts in the Elementary School), and since then it has become pervasive among English composition instructors. For those who don't like FANBOYS, other variants are available, such as YAFNOBS and FONYBAS. The idea behind all of these mnemonics is that they're supposed to help students avoid comma splices and run-on sentences. Independent clauses can be joined in a single sentence either by a semicolon or by a comma with a coordinating conjunction. Gray's 1961 article even presents this rule in a handy mathematical formula: ; = (, + cc).

This all seems very tidy, but in fact the FANBOYS mnemonic doesn't hold up to scrutiny terribly well. Brett Reynolds gives a thorough debunking of "the myth of FANBOYS" on his blog, English, Jack. Though and, but, or, and nor do indeed form a class of conjunctions joining items of equal syntactic importance, for, yet, and so do not work quite the same way. And even the practical advice of placing a comma before one of the FANBOYS conjunctions doesn't hold in all cases. (See Reynolds' post for further details.) At best it's an extremely imperfect rule of thumb, akin to "i before e except after c."

What I'm wondering is, could there have been any cross-pollination between the grammatical mnemonic and the fanboys of comics, science fiction, and the like? If teachers of English composition were keeping FANBOY(S) alive as an acronym in the '50s and '60s, perhaps that had an indirect effect on those underground cartoonists who started using it in the '70s. That's assuming they were paying attention during their language-arts classes and not just reading comic books!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 19th 2010, 7:23 AM
Comment by: Rana Anuran (Silver Spring, MD)
Ben, Tell us about "mashed it up." Why not "mashed it?" Seems like unnecessary homage to "mashup." Whats that about? Anyway? ME
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 8:02 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
Prepositions are like spices: we mix them [up] liberally with our prose, because they brighten [up] bland English and loosen [up] congealed text.
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ah, yes, Geoff, English prepositions are spicy -- and confusing to ESL students.

In the case of the 'mashed up', however, the 'up' wouldn't be considered a preposition as those are what connect phrases (prepositional ones) to the word modified.

Instead, as in many cases, the 'up' is a part of the verb linguistically.

Still in all, I do like your comment, and it is true. But if you try moving the preposition like words around in the sentence, you see their adverbial likeness, rather than their prepositionalness. In this case, I think the 'up' could be either a part of the verb or an adverb. I would probably choose verb part.

This is the reason that English prepositions are so difficult to comprehend!

The 'up' in particular, can be seen to attach to a verb in the verb 'look up' as in 'look up that word'. 'Up' isn't directional, an adverb, as in 'look up at the sky'. It's a part of a verb phrase.

I think the term is post-positional, but I'm not sure. Maybe there's a linguist here who does.

Anyway, there's a slight difference wobbling round my head between 'mashed' nad 'mashed up'.
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 9:56 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Rana: Yes, my use of "mashed it up (with)" was indeed an homage to mash-up, but not an unnecessary one, to my mind. Mash without the up might evoke, say, mashed potatoes, not the image I was going for. Instead I wanted to bring to mind musical mash-ups and to suggest that Lynch's blend was something of a lexical equivalent.

And as Geoff and Jane suggest, phrasal verbs often employ the particle up (linguists would consider it a particle, not a preposition, in this context) for a variety of reasons. New up verbs are being dreamt up all the time -- see Mike Pope's blog Evolving English II for more.
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 10:18 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
So "to mash up" is a back-formation from the noun "mash-up," which itself is a brand-new coinage. (Or is it? Maybe another Word Routes on this term is warranted?) I love how English continues to re-form itself under our very eyes!
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
Essen sie das alles auf.
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I haven't heard 'mash-up', that I can recall. Is it like 'smash-up', referring to a terrible collision on the highway?
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Particle was the word I couldn't remember. Thanks, Ben! I once taught a class that was taking French immersion, during 8th and 9th grade. Their French teacher and I co-ordinated the grammar so we were using the same terms and teaching the same things.

They totally confused their teacher in Grade 10 when, to a 'man/woman', they identified something as a post particle rather than a preposition. He came to me later for an explanation.

I was doing with those students what my husband was doing in his university linguistics course in French -- not the whole course, but some items from it.

It enlivened my own knowledge of my language and changed my way of thinking of it.

I used the sentences: My hobby is collecting dust, and, My husband is collecting dust -- to illustrate gerunds and verb phrases. That latter one always caused a few grins. They suggested he be taken off the shelf more frequently! From there, we explored how the first sentence can have two meanings.
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Wood F.: No, I think the phrasal verb mash up came first, but the noun mash-up has now settled into the language with a fixed meaning: "a song that merges elements from two or more other tunes (like a vocal track and an instrumental track) through computer trickery," as I define it here. Now it's been extended in other directions, such as video mash-ups.

A somewhat similar process has happened with the formation of the verb and noun big-up, which I wrote about here.
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 1:00 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
Interesting to note (from the online Etymological Dictionary) that 'mash' (OE masc-wyrt) originally was a brewing term (one of humankind's basic industries!) and the more general sense of anything reduced to a soft, pulpy consistency is found as early as 1598.

Germans applied the word (Maisch) to crushed grapes, whereas we Brits applied it to crushed potatoes. Does that say something about national charateristics I wonder?!
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 1:23 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I wonder how much thought some of the writers of grammar textbooks and instructional websites put into what they say about conjunctions. They'll give a general definition about conjunctions joining more than one word, phrase, or clause (never mind the cases in which it conjoins more than one PAIR of words or phrases, e.g. I want eggs for breakfast and a hot dog for lunch). They'll list the fanboy(s) words, and perhaps note that and, but, and or are the most common. Then they'll give one or two examples, usually just with and or or linking two clauses or noun phrases. Not only do they give no hint that nor, yet, for, so can't join anything except clauses: No warnings against coordinations like *John for Jane read the book (meaning "John read the book, for Jane had read it"). Even with and, but, or, they don't point out that you can't say *John but Jane read the book (meaning "John read the book, but Jane read the book (too)").
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 6:34 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter

Can you provide an example of when such constructions as these might be used? They are totally unfamiliar to me, and I can't off hand think of a reason why someone would teach that a conjunction would do that.

"John read the book, for Jane had read it"). Even with and, but, or, they don't point out that you can't say *John but Jane read the book (meaning "John read the book, but Jane read the book (too)").
report this as inappropriate.
Wednesday May 19th 2010, 6:38 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Oops! I got the quoted part in there too early. The 'for' means because, and in my mind then is a subordinating conjunction. Either that or it means 'before' and then no comma would be needed. I think.

The next one, "John but Jane...", I have never seen so never had the occasion to treat it as inappropriate.

I always had difficulty enough sorting through the mistakes that my students (and I) did make, and correcting them without finding those that were totally unfamiliar....

Perhaps in another culture?

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"Fanboy" was in Merriam-Webster's new batch of words in 2008.
The Editorial Emergency team takes on comma splices.
Don't fear the semicolon!