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!
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 other articles by Ben Zimmer