Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Team Conan": The Latest Pop-Culture Posse

In the newest chapter of the late-night television wars, "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien has announced that he won't go along with NBC's plan to bump his show to a midnight time slot to make way for Jay Leno at 11:30. After O'Brien made his announcement, he was the recipient of an immediate outpouring of support online. Thousands joined the Team Conan Facebook group, while thousands more expressed their allegiance on Twitter using the #TeamConan hashtag. Where did all this "Team" talk come from?

The general form of "Team X" dates back to the 1970s at least, often used to refer to national teams in the Olympics or other international competitions. The 1976 Canada Cup, a high-profile hockey tournament, helped solidify the "Team [Nation]" model in the North American consciousness: Team USA squared off against Team Canada, Team USSR, Team Sweden, and so forth. Auto racing teams also frequently went by such names as Team Lotus or Team Ferrari. By the 1980s, "Team X" could apply not just to sporting groups but to companies trying to foster a team-like atmosphere. In 1988, Xerox launched an ad campaign (both in print and on TV) with the tagline "Team Xerox. We document the world."

But "Team X" didn't cross over into pop-cultural usage until the summer of 2005, when Brad Pitt began appearing in public with Angelina Jolie, soon after his divorce from Jennifer Aniston. Ah, the mid-aughts, when the "Brangelina" portmanteau was inescapable. This celebrity coupling generated huge amounts of fodder for the tabloids and the budding blogosphere. On June 14, 2005, the New York Daily News reported that T-shirts reading "Team Aniston" or "Team Jolie" were all the rage in Los Angeles. There was even a three-month waiting list for the shirts (with Team Aniston "overwhelmingly" outselling Team Jolie, according to manufacturer White Trash Charms).

The Aniston-Jolie showdown of '05 served as the template for celebrity squabbles that emerged the following year. In January there was Team Clarkson vs. Team Cowell (between "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson and judge Simon Cowell), while in October, on the other side of the Atlantic, there was Team Macca vs. Team Heather (in the divorce case between Paul McCartney and Heather Mills). In the fall of '06, during the third season of the American sitcom "The Office," Jim had to decide between Pam and Karen, so naturally T-shirts popped up encouraging fans to declare their loyalty to Team Pam or Team Karen.

The "Team" metaphor really took off in 2007, with the skyrocketing success of the vampire romance series Twilight. In the novels and movie adaptations, Isabella Swan originally falls for the vampire Edward Cullen, but then the werewolf Jacob Black enters the picture. So what did fans do? You guessed it: they wore T-shirts reading Team Edward and Team Jacob. And if you were undecided on whether Bella should choose Edward or Jacob, there was always "Team Switzerland." (For more on the lingo of the Twilight fan base, see my Word Routes column, "Twilighters vs. Twi-Hards.")

The "Team X" meme continued to spawn new forms when people felt compelled to choose sides in well-publicized spats, whether real or fictional (such as the Team Serena vs. Team Blair rift among fans of the TV show "Gossip Girl"). It has even extended into the techie realm: PC World recently asked its readers, "Are you on Team iPhone or Team Droid?"

Now Conan O'Brien is the beneficiary of a metaphorical "Team" carrying his name. According to reports on the New York Times Media Decoder blog and Mashable, Team Conan has easily swamped Team Jay on the Web, indicating the gaping demographic divide between viewers of O'Brien and Leno — or at least their sympathizers. Brian Stelter of Media Decoder writes, "Mr. O'Brien, it would seem, is more popular among the tech-savvy users of Twitter, even if they don't tune into his nightly program." It looks like joining a "Team" has become the digerati's favored form of bandwagon-jumping. (P.S.: Go, Conan!)

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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 January 13th 2010, 5:54 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Never heard about Team X idea until now, though I saw some people in the street wearing T-shirts having printed on them team such and such (or other words or images), and always wondered why would anyone wear such a terribly inaesthetic outfit (an outfit scratching my eyes, to put it in a way expressing my exact thoughts). Now I know.

I knew the French word portmanteau, but now I learned that another meaning is attached to it. However, now that I know its second meaning, I would be very much interested to know how the blending of two distinct words came to be given the name portmanteau, in other words what’s the history behind it. That would be very interesting indeed. What I’m asking is: Is it known how and why Lewis Carroll came up with this particular label?
Wednesday January 13th 2010, 10:29 PM
Comment by: Gregory H. (Jamaica Plain, MA)
Team Dresch, c. 1993. They were ahead of their time!

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