Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Spoiler Alert! Revealing the Origins of the "Spoiler"

Is there any point in remaining "spoiler-free," steering clear of any crucial plot points of movies or television shows you haven't seen yet? That's the question raised by Netflix in its new "Living with Spoilers" campaign, and it set me off on a search for the roots of the "spoiler" in my latest column for the Wall Street Journal.

"Spoilers are a part of life. We all live with spoilers," say the folks at Netflix, who encourage us to reconsider spoilers now that streaming services like Netflix are changing our viewing habits. When you can binge-watch entire seasons of your favorite shows, the "spoiler" as a cultural taboo is clearly overdue for some rethinking. But where did the word come from?

Novels and films have long had twist endings, but no one was demanding "spoiler alerts" about, say, the identity of the murderer in an Agatha Christie whodunit or the meaning of "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock wanted his audiences to remain spoiler-free when watching "Psycho," pleading with moviegoers, "Please don't give away the ending, it's the only one we have." Still, this sort of plot revelation had not yet been dubbed a "spoiler."

That would first happen about a decade later in the pages of the National Lampoon, an edgy humor magazine that had recently been spun off from the Harvard Lampoon. Doug Kenney's feature "Spoilers" in the April 1971 issue went ahead and ruined a whole lifetime's worth of reading and viewing — including Citizen Kane, Psycho, and those Agatha Christie mysteries. Kenney sarcastically presented his "spoilers" as a public service that "saves time and money." After giving away the ending to Psycho in a teaser for the feature in the March issue, Kenney wrote, "Spoiled that one for ya, see?"

Before then, a "spoiler" was understood more generally as someone or something that messes up the situation, like a competitor who spoils the chances of a frontrunner to win. But the National Lampoon usage would become increasingly prominent in pop culture, beginning in the late '70s. As Mike Schiffer wrote in a comment on article about spoilers on The Awl a few years ago, science-fiction aficionados may have been the first to start warning of potential spoilers. The author Spider Robinson, in his review column for the magazine Destinies called "Spider vs the Hax of Sol III," would often give a "spoiler warning" when revealing the ending of a book he was reviewing. The Fanlore wiki suggests that sci-fi fans followed Robinson's lead by including spoiler warnings in their own reviews of fan-created fiction.

Another commenter on The Awl, Jeff DelPapa (aka "rjnerd"), noted that the "spoiler warning" made the leap to electronic communication in late 1979 on the "SF-Lovers" mailing list hosted by the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. At the time, the list participants were discussing the first Star Trek movie, and Roger Duffy, the moderator of the list, put appropriate spoiler warnings on messages when he compiled them in digest form. Soon there was a new kind of forum for fans who wanted to converse: Usenet newsgroups, the earliest Internet discussion groups. The phrase "spoiler alert" first appears in a posting about the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, in 1982.

I first encountered spoiler alerts when I delved into Usenet newsgroups in the late '80s. Spoiler alerts were particularly common on newsgroups devoted to puzzles (such as rec.puzzles, which took over from the earlier net.puzzle). A post revealing the solution to a puzzle would require "SPOILER" in all caps. Netiquette also dictated the use of "spoiler space" (a screenful of blank lines after the spoiler warning) or some other method of concealing or encrypting the answer, such as ROT13 (shifting letters 13 places in the alphabet).

Along with the emergence of the "spoiler," the verb spoil underwent some changes, too, as our own Neal Whitman noted in a column last year. Originally, the object of the verb was the work of fiction with a revealed plot point, as in, "Doug Kenney spoiled the ending of that movie." But by the '90s, the object of the verb spoil could be the person receiving the unwanted information. Neal turned up examples like "I'm sorry you got spoiled" going back to 1996 on Usenet (first showing up in a discussion of the sci-fi TV series "Babylon 5"). On the "Living With Spoilers" site, Netflix plays with this sense of "getting spoiled" with the double-edged slogan, "Spoil Yourself." We'll see if they manage to shift perceptions of the "spoiler" from public nuisance to public benefit.

(Hat tip to Melanie Alston-Akers for suggesting the topic. Feel free to leave your own suggestions for words to investigate in the comments below!)

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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.