Fanboy! The Strange True Story of the Tech World's Favorite Put-Down

Technology, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a topic that inspires passion. When people like stuff, they tend to really like it. And many tech enthusiasts have trouble dealing with people whose tastes differ from theirs. Praise a product or company online, and you run the risk of being accused of being a sycophant who suffers from obsessive interest and inappropriate emotional attachment.

Except nobody will use those words. What they’ll call you is a fanboy.

The odds of the word coming up are highest if the conversation involves Apple and its products, but it’s a handy, all-purpose insult. Consider these snippets of recent conversation on the Web:

“You Apple fanboys keep drinking the Kool-Aid…”

“Wow, listen to all the Android fanboys!”

“I am not some loser fanboy…”

“Sucks to be a Windoze fanboi…”

“Surely with all the fanboy talk of how important the iDiotPhone is, it should be on the list…”

“Big ego, small brain. Typical fanboy!”

“You’re nothing but an Adobe fanboi…”

“Stop being a lousy fanboy who knows nothing but what Stevie tells you.”

“You Apple haters are worse than any Apple fanboy I’ve ever met, and just as stupid.”

These examples all come from messages posted at PCWorld.com’s forums over the past few weeks, but they could have originated almost anywhere that technology gets discussed. “Fanboy” is everywhere–the New York Times uses it (albeit politely), and so does the Christian Science Monitor. And while it’s often meant to mock, it’s also worn as a badge of honor: There’s a Fanboy.com, a Macfanboy.com, a Sonyfanboy.com, a Nintendofanboy.com, and a Googlefanboy.com. We even have a president who has both been called a fanboy and accused of inspiring fanboyism.

For a simple compound of two one-syllable English words, “fanboy” has surprisingly rich, colorful connotations. I asked my Twitter pals for their definitions and got some cogent answers:

@scadbury: fanboy- someone who is absolutely, fanatically subjective to a brand and emphatically disregards any opposing views.

@baznet: Fanboys are two steps above aficionado, and one step below crazed jagweed

@stanitarium: A product evangelist exaggerating benefits of said product at the cost of admitting benefits of a competitor.

@darth: definition of fanboy: that guy who disagrees with me

@danfrakes: A term a tech writer uses to preemptively discredit anyone who disagrees.

All slightly different–and all correct.

For decades, most references to 'fan boys' (like this LIFE photo) involved kids compliantly attending to rich and powerful types. No official etymological connection to 'fanboy,' but an interesting parallel nonethless.
Origin of the Species

I’m fascinated by “fanboy”–but it’s not a word I use much. Somewhere along the line, I developed a live-and-let-live attitude towards technology enthusiasm. Go ahead and like whatever you like–it’s just fine with me.

I wasn’t always so blasé, though. Thirty years or so ago, I was a high-school student and user of Radio Shack’s TRS-80 computers who found Apple II owners snobby, cliquish, and possibly slightly dimwitted. I would have accused them of being fanboys in a millisecond. if the phrase “Apple fanboy” had been coined yet. But it hadn’t.

Oddly enough, I was one of a smallish group of people who had already been exposed to the word “fanboy.” Long before the word entered the tech lexicon, comic-book collectors like me were flinging it around. People with a normal interest in comics–say, one similar to your own–were fans. Those who went overboard were fanboys.

That much I knew before I began research for this article. I didn’t know, however, just how “fanboy” entered the language in the first place. It’s an interesting story, but you won’t find it in the dictionary. The word is there–in fact, when Merriam-Webster added it in 2008, numerous celebratory news stories marked the fact.

But everybody was so tickled that they failed to notice that Merriam-Webster’s definition stunk. A fanboy, that dictionary says, is “a boy who is an enthusiastic devotee (as of comics or movies).” As anyone who’s either been called a fanboy or called someone else one knows, the boy part isn’t a reference to youth. 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.

Merriam-Webster’s entry says that “fanboy” dates to 1919–the same year specified by the Oxford English Dictionary, which quotes a newspaper’s reference to baseball “fan boys.” The second reference to fanboys identified by the OED occurred in 1985.

Sorry, professional etymologists, you blew it. The 1919 reference has little to do with the current, less-than-complimentary word, since it did, in fact, simply mean “youthful male fan.” And fanboys didn’t inexplicably go into hibernation for sixty-six years.

To understand the origins of “fanboy,” you don’t need to go back to 1919…but you do need to start earlier than 1985. Try 1973–when a handful of copies of a fanzine were distributed at a Chicago comics convention. The zine was credited to two fans who took Marvel Comics, the work of Frank Frazetta, and other matters a wee bit too seriously, Alfred Judson and Bill Beasley. And its name was Fanboy.

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