“When I was reading ASOIF, I totally used to ship Jonerys, but ever since watching AGoT, Jonsa is my OTP. They’re such cinnamon rolls. So many feels!!!!”
This sentence is likely impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t spent much time investigating or participating fandom. Even people who belong to specific fan communities, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Harry Potter, while able to discern some of these terms, might not be familiar with all of them. Welcome to the wild world of fan slang.
Fandom, like all communities, has developed its own slang, a lexicon of fan jargon that separates insider from outsiders. In fact, many books on fan studies include a glossary of fan terms to help uninitiated academics navigate fandom specific words and acronyms. There are some terms that pervade across fandoms, like canon, fanon, OTP, and ship, while others, most commonly ship names, are fandom-specific. As fans migrate from one fan community to another or join intrafandom communities, like SuperWhoLock, they introduce new terms into these subcommunties, which may, or may not, be adopted and gain larger traction within other fandoms.
Canon: In fan communities, canon refers to the official material that makes up the story and universe of the media property. Determining what counts as canon can be tricky. For example, in the Buffy fandom, the television show (1997-2003) counts as canon; however, most fans ignore or reject the 1992 film. Some fans accept the comics (which have not been read by the majority) as canon, others don’t count them. Officially sanctioned novels and other media spin-offs, too, hold an ambiguous position within the canon. Other fandoms, like Harry Potter, debate whether insights and material from author interviews count as canon. For example, is it canon that Dumbledore is gay or that Harry and Tom Riddle are related?
Fanon: Fanon refers to beliefs held by the fan community that are not supported by the property’s canon. Fanon can develop backstories for characters, provide them with more emotional depth, expand world building, or resolve plot holes or inconsistencies in the media property. For example, it is fanon in the Buffy fan community that vampires will mate with a specific human, marking that human by biting them. The mark binds the human and vampire together. It never happens in the show, which treats vampire bites erotic but not binding. However, it does occur in a lot of Buffy fanfiction. Fanon can also include fan theories that are widely accepted by the fan community, like A Song of Ice and Fire’s R+L=J theory, which although not confirmed in the novels, is widely accepted as fact (and has been affirmed by the HBO television series adaption). When theories like these are confirmed, they move from fanon to official canon. In other cases, they are “Jossed,” and disproven (the term is a play on Joss Whedon, who has a habit of doing this to fans).
Head-Canon: Head-Canon is basically individualized fanon. Like fanon, it is not necessarily supported by the show’s canon, and is often used to fill in plot holes, continuity issues, character behavior, or other incongruities found within the canon. However, unlike fanon, which has wider acceptance within the fan community, head-canon tends to be held only by the individual. In some cases, like the example below, head-canon is used to intensify the emotions or relations of characters. These head canons might result in feels (see below).
Ship: Ship refers to a romantic or sexual pairing between two characters. Ship can be used as a verb, as in “I ship them,” or as a noun in reference to a relationship, “the good ship Bethyl.” The term shipper refers to a person in support of the romantic relationship, and shipping is used to describe the practice. Generally, ships are not formed around canonical relationships, but by picking up on subtextual cues between characters. Fans become emotionally invested in seeing the characters eventually get together and will
look for clues in the media property that this will occur. Because fans are eager to interpret the text as supporting their ship, they run the risk of wearing shipping goggles, a term used to recognize the subjectivity of shipper interpretations. Some ships become canon; others do not. Within fandoms, ship wars can break out when ships are mutually exclusive. For example, in the A Game of Thrones fandom, arguments break out between fans who want to see Jon Snow with Daenerys Targaryen and those who think he should marry Sansa Stark.
Ships are often identified though portmanteaus combining the characters’ names. Jaenerys refers to the Jon/Daenerys pairing and Jonsa is Jon and Sansa. Spike and Buffy fans ship “Spuffy” and those who want to see the Slayer with Angel are into Bangel. In some fandoms, other short hand is used. For example, while the Once Upon a Time fan do have ships like Bellefire (Belle and Balefire) and Rumbelle (Belle and Rumpelstiltskin), others have names like Captain Swan (Captain Hook and Emma Swan), Outlaw Queen (Regina (aka the evil queen) and Robin Hood), and Brave Warrior (Merida and Mulan). In this naming convention, identifiers tend to be consistent so that Emma Swan is always indicated by “Swan” and Regina Mills is always “Queen.”
OTP: OTP stands for “One True Pairing” and indicates a fan’s favorite pairing within a fandom. While a fan might ship multiple pairings, the OTP tends to be the primary relationship featured in fanfiction or posts, while other relationships take a more secondary, supporting role. For example, fans whose OPT is Jonsa might also ship Robbaery (Margaery Tyrell and Robb Stark), Gendrya (Arya Stark and Gendry Waters), and Lannistarth (Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth), and those ships might appear in their fanfiction, but the focus is on Jon and Sansa and their relationship.
Variations on the phrase are also used by fans. NOTP (Not One True Pairing) is used to refer to ships that the fan does not endorse. And BROTP indicates a fan’s favorite masculine (nonromantic) friendship.
Trash Ships: Sometimes a ship is problematic in some way. Perhaps the relationship is incestuous or canonically abusive. Maybe there is a troubling power dynamic between the characters. It’s unhealthy or toxic. Fanfiction written about these couples tends to be angsty and dark. But fans ship it anyway. These are trash ships. Unlike crackships (see below), fans are genuinely invested in these pairings, even though they recognize that they are troubling, problematic, or morally icky. The term trash ship originates from fans asserting that they are trash for shipping it, but that does not mean they are going to stop.
Crackship: While fans recognize that their OTP may not become canon, they are relatively certain that crackships will never be actualized. The term of the crackship refers to ships that are bizarre, insane, or unsettling (alluding to the fact that a fan would need to be on crack to come up with it). Crackships are generally developed as humor within the fan community, and fans will attempt to outdo each other with the absurdity of the pairings they come up with. For example, on a reddit thread, Harry Potter fans challenge each other to come up with the “worst/funniest potential” ship, like Hermione and Hagrid, Umbridge and Firenze, Neville and Bellatrix, Colin Creevey and Voldemort, and Hogwarts Castle and the Giant Squid. As Darrark, the user who initiated this thread notes, all of these pairings are “awful, either in a humorous or horrifying way.” In short, they are all crackships.
Feels: When fans watch a particularly emotional episode of a television show, look at a GIF capturing an important interaction between characters (a longing look, for example), or read a piece of fanfiction with a major character death or an OTP getting together after a long slow burn, they run the risk of having feels. Feels are the vicarious emotions that fans experience by engaging with either the source text or the artistic work of other fans. A shortened version of the word “feelings,” feels indicates emotional intensity, either positive or negative. Fans tend to represent feels as a physical assault and something completely out of our control. They tend to be overwhelming and something that we enjoy (the vicarious butterflies in the stomach that comes from watching our OTP interact) and dread (the devastation that comes with the death of a beloved character).
Cinnamon Roll: The term “cinnamon roll” originates from an article in The Onion that featured a picture of a cinnamon roll with the title “Beautiful Cinnamon Roll Too Good For This World, Too Pure.” This phrase was adopted into and spread throughout fandom as a way to describe favorite or sympathetic characters. Eventually the phrase was shortened, so that simply referring to a character as a “cinnamon roll” evoked the entire phrase.
Queerbaiting: Within many fan communities, especially those dedicated to shows, films, or novels that disproportionately focus on male characters and their relationships, fans pick up on homoerotic subtext and develop same-sex ships. When media properties self-consciously suggest, but refuse to actualize same-sex relationships, they are queerbaiting. As the term indicates, this practice is seen as a way to attract queer viewers without actually having to depict a same-sex relationship and deal with potential network or viewer backlash. Shows like Supernatural, Sherlock, and Merlin have all be accused by members of their respective (and sometimes overlapping) fan communities of queerbaiting.
TPTB: TPTB is an acronym for “The Powers That Be,” a reference to a media property’s creators. The phrase suggests that the creators have an almost god-like authority, and fans might also use the phrase “the word of god” to refer to information that is not explicitly present in the canon, but has been provided by creators in interviews or blog posts. Fans can have various reactions to the TPTB: sometimes accepting their proclamations as canon, sometimes ignoring them. TPTB might be loved with a favorite ship becomes canon, but they can also face scorn and derision if a major character dies or is represented in a way that is not in keeping with fans’ interpretations.
BNF: BNF is an acronym for “Big Name Fan.” These are popular fanfic writers, artists, podcasters, or bloggers within the fan community. Very often, these fans will develop their own fan bases and might be invited to participate in convention panels. Some BNFs have found ways to monetize their status within the fan community.
Darrak. “Worst/funniest potential Harry Potter pairing?” Reddit.com, 2014, https://www.reddit.com/r/harrypotter/comments/1wt9im/worstfunniest_potential_harry_potter_pairing/.