Merriam-Webster announced the addition of one hundred fifty new words to its celebrated dictionary of American English, from “Auto-Tune” (to adjust or alter (a recording of a voice) with Auto-Tune software or other audio-editing software esp. to correct sung notes that are out of tune) to “Yooper” (a native or resident of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — used as a nickname).
And, nestled in among a selection of words that seem themed around the intersection of technology and pop culture, is one we’re very familiar with here on The Mary Sue: “fangirl.”
People often imagine dictionaries as the immutable standard to which language should conform, when they’re really the exact opposite: a scrambling uphill battle to catalogue the ever changing nature of a global (or in the case of M-W, national) language and capture it on the page. This misconception can lead to a lot of handwringing about slang and other recent word forms being “legitimized” with entries into something as venerable as a dictionary. No such handwringing here! The whole point of dictionaries is to describe how we do use language, not how we “should” by any particular viewpoint’s definition.
Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines our use of fangirl:
fangirl (n., 1934): a girl or woman who is an extremely or overly enthusiastic fan of someone or something
As definitions go, it’s a pretty good one. By categorizing fangirl behavior as both extreme or overly enthusiastic, it encompasses both ways in which this term can be used. On the one hand, as a celebratory or neutral term but also, as we often see it, as a pejorative to describe an annoying obsession. The definition is It is also a twin of Webster’s already standing definition of “fanboy”.
Doubtless there are some folks in the comments who will bemoan the fact that we have gendered terms for fans in the first place, much in the same way they do for the phrase “gamer girl.” Well, don’t take it up with Websters, they’re just trying to catalogue how language is already used in everyday speech and writing. And don’t take it up with people who use fangirl, as the first use of the term “fanboy” predates the first use of “fangirl” by fifteen years. If any term put a gender on “fan” it was fanboy.
Beyond first use of terms, we still live in a popular culture that assumes that fans of nerd pursuits are male, making terms like “fan” and “gamer” and “geek” male-associated. And until we change those perceptions, it is vitally important to have terms by which the folks whose identities are erased by those assumptions can proudly, publicly identify. Because merely identifying as a “gamer girl,” “fangirl,” or “geek girl” pushes people to reconsider their assumptions about the default gender they associate with “gamer,” “fan,” and “geek.”
As to why all these terms use “girl” or “boy” and not “man” or “woman,” you got me. Go ask an actual linguist.