clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Canon, fanon, shipping and more: a glossary of the tricky terminology that makes up fan culture

KROQ Weenie Roast 2016
Fans watch the band Blink-182 perform onstage at KROQ Weenie Roast 2016.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for CBS Radio Inc.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

This article is part of a series on fan culture and its many related topics.

Imagine that two of your co-workers — likely but not necessarily 20- or 30-something women — are talking about that thing you like. Let's say it's The CW's Arrow-verse. You walk over to join their conversation, but they appear to be speaking in foreign tongues:

"Did you see last night's ep? I love Snowbarry."

"God, it's such a trash pairing. I OTP Westallen so hard, though."

"Yeah, they're total cinnamon rolls. I can't deal with all the ship wars in that fandom, though. I'm mostly there for the meta."

"Do you read any fic?"

"A little. There are some amazing AUs on AO3 but the fic quality is pretty sketch, so I usually just read headcanons on Tumblr."

If you followed the entirety of that hypothetical chat, congratulations: You're a dyed-in-the-wool member of fandom (and probably a fan of DC Comics' fictional television universe). You know that these two fangirls are engaged in a complicated rundown of numerous complex relationships both on the TV show itself and within the community of fans that has sprung up around that show.

But to most of us, fandom jargon — what we might call fanspeak — is a world unto itself. Because fandom has so many internalized special definitions and linguistics, it can often seem impenetrable, especially to a newcomer or outsider.

That's why we've compiled a basic glossary of the most common terms and concepts you'll see in fandom culture. Soon you'll be talking the talk and feeling the feels alongside your fellow fans — or at least you'll be able to understand what the fan in your life is talking about.

Part 1: What even is "fandom"?

A fandom is simply a community of fans, be they online or off, active or passive. The word "fandom" is both a collective noun, describing many fandoms and subfandoms as one giant body of fans, and a singular one referring to a single fandom. The earliest known print usage of the term comes from an 1896 Washington Post sports column describing "local fandom."

The idea of fandom grew hand in hand with the rise of male-dominated science fiction fandom in the early 20th century, which mostly centered on books and short stories. It wasn't until the '60s and '70s that women began forming fandom spaces for themselves, mainly focused on sci-fi and genre television.

These spaces have largely evolved into what constitutes "fandom" on the internet today: communities of fans focused on creating fanworks, as well as on actively consuming media in a collaborative digital social environment. Fandom is vast and huge, and it's anything but monolithic. Many fans will often distinguish between several hugely different fan cultures: sports fandom, which is its own cultural juggernaut; traditional sci-fi and fantasy fandom, a descendent of its early-20th-century beginnings; pop music and celebrity fandom, which tends to congregate heavily on mainstream social media spaces (think Beliebers, the Beyhive, Swifties, Directioners, and other countless fan bases that focus on specific performers); and online, female-dominated, fanworks-based fandom. In most fanworks-based communities, you are generally assumed to be female unless you say otherwise.

It's important to distinguish between these vastly different corners of fandom because they aren't all in conversation with one another — and when they are, they often approach the conversation very differently.

Part 2: Basic fandom concepts

  • Canon: The source material. In fiction-based fandoms, "canon" is simply the source narrative you're referring to when you talk about that thing you like. Some people have different ideas of what "canon" is — for example, many Harry Potter fans don't consider anything but the published books to be canon, while other fans include the extra information author J.K. Rowling has provided about the wizarding world on her Pottermore website and on Twitter.
  • Fanon: These are the pieces of information fans make up to supplement their canons. Sometimes a detail gets widely distributed and becomes a major fanon trope, meaning it makes its way around fandom and becomes a well-known idea. And to really break your brain, sometimes that trope makes its way back to the creators of the source material, who stick the fanon trope into canon. For instance, in the third season of the BBC's Sherlock, John Watson was rescued from a bonfire in a cheeky reference to the fanon meme depicting Martin Freeman, who plays Watson, as a hedgehog. (Hedgehogs often curl up in the piles of wood assembled for bonfires on Guy Fawkes Day in England.)
  • Headcanon: A sub-branch of "fanon" is actually called "headcanon." When someone invents a piece of fanon they really believe in, it may not be accepted as a general part of fandom, but it still stays tucked away inside its creator's brain; it thus becomes his or her personal "headcanon."
  • Fannish: An adjective describing something related to fandom or having characteristics of fandom.
  • Shipping: Perhaps the single most popular fandom activity, shipping involves fans rooting for two characters — or two real-life people, if your fandom is reality-based — to get together romantically. Sometimes old-school fans will write "ship" with an apostrophe, 'ship/'shipping, to acknowledge that the terms are derived from "relationship." Shipping comes from The X-Files' fandom, which coined the concept in the '90s to describe fan reaction to the interminable UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension) between Mulder and Scully.

    If you ship a pair of characters, they become a ship and you become a shipper. Often the shippers behind different ships fight for dominance within a fandom; these are called ship wars. Ships are also frequently referred to as pairings, and more colloquially they are commonly called by their "pairing names" — portmanteaus formed by joining the names of the two halves of the pairing together à la Bennifer and Brangelina. So I might say I'm a Spike/Buffy shipper, or I could say I ship "Spuffy."
  • OTP: An abbreviation of the phrase "one true pairing." The term OTP is generally reserved for a pairing that you really, really ship, the one you believe in above all others. For instance, I might ship Gilmore Girls' Jess/Rory to a hardcore extent, but Rory/Paris will always be my Gilmore Girls OTP.
  • OT3, OT4, etc.: The polyamorous version of an OTP. For example, if Captain America: Civil War had simply ended in an OT3, the film might have resolved the complicated jealousy and rivalry occurring between Iron Man, Captain America, and Captain America's longtime best friend Bucky.
  • Fanfiction: Fanfiction — or fanfic or fic, but never "fan fiction"; the two-word construction is considered incorrect — is fiction written about a previously existing work, or a previously existing source of some kind. This previously existing source can be virtually anything, including reality; there's a whole subgenre of fanfic called RPF, short for "real person fiction," or fanfiction about real people.

    Fanfiction exists about everything from commercials to inanimate objects to real world history. Fanfiction is also as old as civilization itself, and, contrary to popular belief, it's not illegal. It's generally considered to be fair use under US copyright law, in that it qualifies as a "transformative" work based off the original source material.

    Fanfiction is a collective noun, so you say "works of fanfiction," not "fanfictions." "Fanfic" and "fic" have plural forms (fanfics and fics, respectively) but are also collective.
  • Fanworks: Fanworks are stuff you make in honor of a canon; how you define "stuff" and "make" is largely up to you. Common types of fanworks include things like fan art and fan vids (exactly like fanfic but with pictures and videos), meta (serious discussion about canon or about fandom itself), cosplay (dressing in costume as a fictional character), fan comics, fan films, podfics (recordings of fanfiction made by other fans), filk (fannish song parodies), fan theories, and everything from fannish sewing patterns to fannish tattoos. In short, it's just about anything you can think of making to support, defend, expand upon, discuss, or celebrate your fandom.
  • TPTB: A fandom abbreviation for "the powers that be." This is fandom's way of describing the creator, creative team, and/or production team behind a canon. The use of this term is waning in modern fandom (in favor of "creators," "showrunners," etc.), but it's still in use, especially among older fans. The term has the side effect of reminding fans that ultimately, creators have power over canonical material and, to some extent, over fandom itself.
  • BNF: big-name fan. This term dates from old-school sci-fi fandom and refers to a "famous" fan or a fan who is more or less at the center of fandom culture. For instance, before she became a major best-seller, The Shadowhunters author Cassandra Clare was considered to be the most famous fanfiction author in the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fandoms. What makes a fan famous is debatable; a well-known fandom axiom holds that "one person's BNF is another person's WTF."

Part 3: Fanfiction terminology

There's a lot of special jargon associated with fanfiction, and with the practice of "shipping," mainly because the vast majority of fanfic involves shipping to some degree. So fandom language often focuses on identifying what kind of fic is being written and who's being shipped with whom.

Ship subclassifications:

  • Het: Short for "heterosexual," this term refers to pairings involving a straight male/female couple. Het fanfic is "het fic."
  • Slash: Slash is a subgenre of fanfiction involving male/male pairings, usually non-canonical male/male pairings. The term originates from classic Star Trek fandom; early fans who shipped Kirk and Spock stylized the ship name as "Kirk/Spock," which led to calling the whole genre "slash." If two male characters have a lot of chemistry, you might say they're "slashy."

    For most of its existence, slash has been a controversial subject in fandom. Many fans believe slash is a subversive response to heteronormative canons, which rarely allow for the possibility that main characters can be queer. But a growing number of fans maintain that the tendency of slashers to fixate on mostly white male characters makes slash a deeply problematic and regressive genre.

    Slash is a huge part of modern fandom culture. As of Tumblr's last statistical analysis on the subject, it's pretty clear that the vast majority of pairings being shipped in fandom tend to be slash pairings. However, the major het ships in fandom, like Arrow's Olicity, seem to have more shippers in other locations on the internet — not just Tumblr, which is generally considered to be the contemporary hub of fandom online.
  • Femslash: The female/female equivalent of slash. Femslashers generally want to be considered separately from "slash" in discussions of fandom because their ships are often quite different. Femslash has historically accounted for the smallest portion of fandom, but recently femslash pairings have surged in popularity thanks to major canonical queer ships like Korrasami for the TV show The Legend of Korra and Clexa for the TV show The 100, and non-canonical but still popular ones like Swanqueen within the fandom for the TV show Once Upon a Time.
  • Gen or genfic: Short for "general," genfic is what you get when your story isn't primarily concerned with romance. You can also be a "gen shipper," which paradoxically means you don't ship anyone in particular.
  • RPF and RPS: "real person fiction" and "real person slash." These are stories and/or ships about real people, past or present, dead or alive. Though RPF is a mildly controversial form of fanfiction — film critic Devin Faraci has caustically referred to the act of shipping real people as a "mental illness" — it's by far the most historically common kind of fanfic, spun in everything from fictionalized biographies to Shakespeare’s plays to speculative tabloid journalism. RPS is the slash shipping version of RPF. Because of the issues involved in speculating on someone's real sexual identity, RPS can sometimes can get a bit thorny, to put it mildly.

Fan archives

There are countless fanfiction archives in existence, like the massive wealth of fic at sites like AsianFanfics, innumerable tiny forums for individual fandoms, and blog sites like LiveJournal, Tumblr, and Dreamwidth. Most fanfiction archives tend to be for-profit or ad-supported models. Currently, there are three especially predominant archives:

  • This is the common fandom term for, online since 1998 and still one of the most popular multi-fandom fanfiction archives on the internet. Because tends to be the gateway archive for n00bs posting fic, it has a longstanding reputation of being a kind of "starter" website for young fans, and is often referred to by fans as "the Pit of Voles" or "the Site That Must Not be Named" because of the nebulous quality of its content. But plenty of longtime fans continue to enjoy its thriving community, and it remains one of the most stable fic archives on the internet.
  • Wattpad: Wattpad is an online self-publishing platform that has become hugely popular with fans, on a massive scale that dwarfs all other fanfiction archives on the internet. Like Movellas, Quotev, and other similar corporate publishing platforms that allow fanfiction, Wattpad's fanfiction demographics skew younger, with a focus on celebrity fandoms. The One Direction fanfiction turned young-adult publishing phenomenon After started out as a Wattpad juggernaut that has already been read 383 million times online.
  • AO3: AO3 is the Archive of Our Own, the largest entirely fan-run, non-corporate fanfiction archive on the internet. AO3 went live in 2008 after fans on LiveJournal decided it was time to create a fan-owned and -operated fanfic archive, one that would not be subject to the whims of corporate censorship (which has historically been a major, universal problem for fanfiction writers) and/or domain owners who didn't understand the difference between "fanfiction" and "plagiarism," or between "fanfiction" and "porn" — among many other issues fans were tired of battling.

    The process of building the AO3 led to the creation of the fandom-run nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works (the OTW), which advocates for the legal rights, preservation, and awareness of fanworks. Because the AO3 was built primarily by slashers, it's known for being a mostly slash-oriented website.

The different types of fanfiction

  • Canon fic, or in-universe fic: Fic that builds off the existing canonical storyline.
  • AU: Short for "alternative universe," AU places canonical characters into a different setting, universe, or timeline, or otherwise alters something significant about the existing canonical storyline.

    Popular subgenres of AU include the "historical AU," when characters are sent back in time to a specific historical era; the "coffee shop AU," in which characters are taken out of their existing storyline and placed in the context of meeting randomly in a coffee shop (usually one half of your OTP is a barista, and the other half is an annoyed, harried, caffeine-addicted patron); the high school or college AU, in which your characters are aged older or younger and sent to high school or college as the case may be; and the "Hogwarts AU," in which all the characters of another universe are sent to Hogwarts.
  • Crossover fic: A cousin to the AU, this kind of fic combines two or more sources. Think Archie vs. Predator.
  • PWP: Short for "Plot? What plot?" or sometimes "porn without plot," this is a type of fic that's "Hard R" or NC-17 and mostly exists to explore two or more characters getting it on.
  • WIP: Short for "work in progress." Many fics are posted in serial installments, and all too often, WIPs are heartbreakingly left unfinished.
  • Mary Sue or Gary Stu: This is an original self-insert character or the fic he or she appears in. Mary Sues are heavily mocked both inside and outside fandoms because they're usually characterized by unrealistic amounts of perfection — prettiest looks, highest grades, strongest athletic ability, etc. The most over-the-top Mary Sues are purely ridiculous, like Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, goth-witch heroine of the infamous Harry Potter fanfic "My Immortal" — but Mary Sues are often a vital way for fans to explore fiction writing. And the tendency to make a character a "Sue" isn't just limited to fanfiction; you can find unbelievably perfect self-inserts at the center of everything from Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear to Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline.
  • Genderbending: Genderbent fic is fic that changes the gender of one or more of the canonical characters.
  • Racebending and fancasting: Fancasting is the practice of casting a totally new or theorized actor or cast of characters in a role; for example, before Eddie Redmayne was cast as Newt Scamander in the upcoming Harry Potter spinoff film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, many Harry Potter fans fancast a wide range of actors in the part, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Dev Patel to Nathan Stewart-Jarrett.

    The cousin term, "racebending," actually has two very different meanings depending on context. The word comes from the fan protests surrounding the notorious film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2008 and 2009; the project infamously whitewashed the cast, despite the source material's clear emphasis on diversity, drawing massive backlash from the Avatar fandom. "Racebending" was a term coined from the concept of "airbending" to mean the act of changing a person's ethnic origin in order to allow for casting a white actor, and originally it was used as a pejorative.

    Today, the site Racebending, which originated with the Avatar protests, is a media watch site whose mission is to raise awareness of Hollywood whitewashing. Meanwhile, the term has also come to mean changing the ethnicity of presumed white characters to envision them as examples of diverse representation in a positive way. This positive trend, sometimes referred to as "chromatic casting," now proliferates in fandom culture.

Part 4: Issues in fandom

  • The fourth wall: This is an extremely complicated and controversial idea that there is, or at least ought to be, an invisible "fourth wall" that exists between fans and creators, and to a different extent between fandom and the outside world — a wall that simultaneously protects fans against outside scrutiny and judgment and protects creators from knowing what fans are talking about and allowing fandom activity to influence them. With the increased mainstreaming of fandom, and the advent of social media, fan-creator interaction is more common than ever, but many fans remain freaked out by it and can often be heard commenting that they "want the fourth wall back."
  • Queerbaiting: Another extremely complicated and controversial issue in fandom. The idea of queerbaiting has evolved mainly among slash and femslash fans to mean an in-progress canonical storyline which exploits queer fans or fans of a specific queer ship by teasing them for ratings without any intention of actually making characters canonically queer.

    Queerbaiting usually starts when creators insert slashy subtext into their show. Queerbaiting can also involve marketing teams or creatives building on or openly embracing homoerotic subtext outside the show. Historically, this kind of practice has been a boon to queer fans, a way for creators to tacitly embrace queer audiences while dealing with the reality of the celluloid closet. But modern fans are increasingly unwilling to settle for subtext, and if the show itself doesn't follow through on any of the homoerotic hints, accusations of queerbaiting are quick to follow. Where things get really tricky is when fans accuse narratives that already do have meaningfully queer characters and queer relationships of exploiting them and their expectations.
  • P2P: P2P is short for "pull to publish," which is also known as "filing off the serial numbers." This refers to the growing phenomenon of fans publishing their fanfiction as original work for profit, either by stealthily changing the names of characters and disguising the origins, as in Fifty Shades of Grey (which began its life as a vampireless Twilight office AU), or by proudly celebrating the "new" novel's origins, as in the aforementioned One Direction fic After.
  • Cinnamon rolls and trash ships: The idea of a "beautiful cinnamon roll" pairing stems from an Onion article that became a famed Tumblr meme; the conceit is that something about the pairing is "too pure, too good for this world" — and sometimes this can translate to being afraid the pairing will be "damaged," written badly, or tainted somehow by the many problematic tropes that inhabit fandom.

    Conversely, a "trash ship" or a "garbage ship" comes from the idea of declaring yourself "trash" over your love of a thing/person/pairing — maybe because it's not the healthiest or most politically correct pairing, maybe because it's just something you find embarrassing or shameful, or because you're trying to ironically describe your own deep, helpless love for it.

    Recently in fandom culture, an increasing number of fans in some fandoms — most notably Star Wars — are interpreting "cinnamon roll ships" and "trash ships" as totally separate kinds of ships that bespeak an ideological divide. For instance, a ship like Kylux (Kylo Ren and the minor character Hux in The Force Awakens) might be labeled a "trash ship" because it's seen as a representation of fandom's heavily white status quo — your average ubiquitous white-dude slash pairing. And a ship like Ichabbie (Ichabod Crane/Abbie Mills on Sleepy Hollow) might be seen as a "cinnamon roll" ship both because of the pureness of their love and because one of its members is a woman of color. Again, this being fandom, these issues are very layered, controversial, and complicated.

As these terms make clear, fandom is a complicated beast full of nuance, evolving language, and introspection about everything from why we fall in love with fictional characters to the need for diversity and progressive representation in media. It's also full of surprises, so if you're a fan, congratulate yourself on being in one of the most fascinating communities on the web.

Fandom is also not homogeneous, and we've left out many terms that are in common use among various subfandoms and subcultures within fandom. If you want to know more about fandom and its terms, or specific fandoms, we recommend checking out Fanlore, the fandom wiki run by the Organization for Transformative Works. Got another fandom term you want defined or added to the list? Let us know!