Fandom As She Is Spoke

What is the secret language of sf fandom? Newspaper journalists who try to penetrate the mysteries usually end up sounding faintly silly.

This, I fear, is because sf fans have prejudiced views, based on the suspicion that no matter how sympathetic the journalist may sound when told about the subtle literary qualities of Gene Wolfe or the current crisis in sf publishing, the resulting story will always begin, approximately: "Nerds and geeks were out in force when I beamed down from my UFO to last weekend's sci-fi anorakfest on Planet Birmingham."

That's our English language: time and again a reporter pulls on his anorak, an entirely sensible garment well suited to our dismal climate, and goes off to write a story sneering at people suspected of wearing anoraks....

We're talking sociolinguistic nuances here. The reporter uses "anorak" in a special sense. SF people do just this with "sci-fi", pronouncing it in tones of heavy irony to describe bad TV or movie sf. The actual term was coined long ago by Forrest J. Ackerman, to echo "hi-fi". Unfortunately Ackerman, though the nicest of men, was associated for many years with fearful B-movie material thanks to his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland – and somehow it all rubbed off on his beloved creation "sci-fi".

But the term got loose from the laboratory like Frankenstein's creature, and is now used without irony by outsiders ... while insiders found they needed a word for terrible sf that they actually rather liked, and came up with the variation "skiffy".

A problem for researchers eager to make mock is that most sf fan language is dull and functional. "Fanzine" short for "fan magazine" – yes, that came from sf, though rock and football fans borrowed it and some people have so forgotten its roots that they pronounce it as in Auld Fan Syne. Con for sf convention, APA for amateur press association, GoH for guest of honour (at conventions) ... there's nothing to match the poetic metaphors of drug culture, probably because sf fandom has little to hide. You rarely get chucked into prison for pushing novels, even if they're by Terry Brooks or Piers Anthony.

One word, "gafiate", has a mildly interesting history. GAFIA was coined back in the 1930s as an acronym for Getting Away From It All – escaping from the mundane world into sf fan activities (alias "fanac", but luckily you don't hear that one much these days). The verb "gafiate" naturally followed, but eventually switched polarity and came to mean getting away from fandom.

All these decades of fan doings have left a terrible legacy of fannish terms invented as in-jokes or squibs, and duly recorded by fandom's would-be historians. These dread words are now used only when incautious reporters at conventions betray themselves by going on about sci-fi and anoraks. The jokesters move in....

And so the journalist's leg is pulled with tales of how fans call their women femmefans (dating back to years when a female fan was a rare phenomenon), feast on blog and crottled greeps (imaginary rotgut drink and unsavoury viands invented as a 1950s British jape), worship embarrassing deities like Ghu, FooFoo and Roscoe (the Americans can take the blame for all that), and spell certain words with the special fannish H as in "bheer" or "Ghod" (this hideous whimsy is happily long extinct except – strangely – in Swedish fandom).

Of course it all ends in tears: whether or not the reporter takes such nonsense seriously, it's a wonderful opportunity to portray the fans as loonies wearing space-anoraks and babbling in tongues. Staring aghast at the resulting write-up, the hungover news sources wail, "The bastard! We were only joking!"

Yes, you should believe nothing you hear about fanspeak, not even from me. My and others' dislike of "sci-fi" is still hotly contested by its inventor Forrest J. Ackerman, who staunchly argues that the initials "sf" are too easily confused with abbreviations for Finland or a certain US city. People might misunderstand my latest book review as reading, "This saga of nanotechnology and intergalactic warfare will become an enduring landmark of San Francisco."

Meanwhile my favourite expert on Eastern Europe explains that "sci-fi" is actually the really cool thing to call sf in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Moreover, in Romania it's best to avoid the Russian-derived word for it, "stiintifico-fantastica" – this is reckoned to brand you as an old-line communist. So people say "SF" instead ... which in Romania is pronounced, roughly, "sci-fi". My brain hurts.