A few weeks ago I received an email from an editor I’m working with that had “Urgent” written in the subject line. Always a great way to give a grad student her daily heart attack. This actually wasn’t a big issue though, just a legitimate question she was relaying from the copy editor: Why in the world did you write “powerful!Harry” at the end of your essay? Is this some sort of typo?
It definitely looks like one doesn’t it? By the rules of conventional English (whatever the hell that means) chucking an exclamation point between two words so you can string them together pretty much isn’t a thing. Fan language though? Loaded with meaning. The exclamation point—otherwise known as a bang—is used as a way of emphasizing a trait that a character possesses (Fanlore). Harry isn’t just powerful in this fic, he’s powerful!Harry, in that his power is a defining aspect of his identity and a driving element of the story. Writing “barista Harry” is distinctly different from “barista!Harry” as the former is merely a descriptor of his occupation while the latter highlights that occupation as something formative to Harry and our experiences of the fic. As the beautiful, wonderful, fantastically detailed Fanlore also points out (you’ll notice throughout this post that there is pretty much a grand total of One Source and they’re it. Welcome to the limited records of fandom history), the bang can be used to denote fic genres as well—or fic tropes if you prefer. Differentiating the two in fandom is messy to say the least.
We could, for example, discuss wing!fic, or crack!fic though you’re just as likely to find “wing fic” or “crack fic” because the distinction here isn’t quite as important. No one is going to label their work “wing!fic” or “wing fic” unless wings are a primary aspect of this universe. Wings are always a driving force here and thus the choice in terminology is moot. Yet you could absolutely have varying degrees of how powerful Harry is, how much that influences the plot, and whether those choices coincide with expectations about the trope; whether you’re mirroring what other people have done with it in the past. Any version of “wing (!) fic” means roughly the same thing. “Powerful Harry” will never be “Powerful!Harry” though. That’s a distinction worth keeping.
As said, the use of this language generates expectations for the reader, as language is wont to do, while providing fans with the tools needed to communicate in nuanced ways through a medium that lacks tone or body language—aka online or across other written works. Fandom language is, pardon my French, fucking awesome. It's complicated enough to give us these opportunities to express ourselves while likewise alienating any outsiders. As that copy editor found out, if you’re going to immerse yourself in fandom you need to be willing to pick up the lingo we’ve spent decades developing.
Yet after this conversation I became intrigued. When exactly did this trend develop? Has it changed at all over the years, especially when fic moved from print fanzines to online archives? Do we have any idea where it might be heading: evolving with the rest of fandom or slowly dying out? As with so much regarding fic history, the info here is kind of slim. One origin story points to the use of “bang paths” as an early way of directing email using UUCP (Nentauby). The example given is if you wanted to send an email to “Steve” but there was a Steve in both the art and the physics department, you would address your email to “psy!Steve“ or ”art!Steve” respectively. Another tumblr user responded that this is “100% correct” info. Indeed, much of early fandom language did evolve out of computer/Internet terms and bang paths are definitely a thing (“Bang path”). Linguistic scholar Gretchen McCulloch backs this up by noting that much of the language we still use today developed out of that technical know-how; the computer speak that can still sometimes sound like an alien language to those not already immersed in it (Min). Thus, this certainly seems like a logical explanation as to how the bang came about, though how we went from connecting people with their locations to using the bang to describe specific characteristics… that remains unknown. The only explanation we’re given is that the terminology “got looser” as time went on (Fanlore). I find it fascinating though that we didn’t adopt the pathway aspect as well. That is, it would have been easy enough to follow the UUCP style and attach numerous modifiers to one character: angsty!Dark!powerful!Harry, but if there are strings out there like that I haven’t come across them—not often, anyway. At some point we all decided to separate each characteristic out into its own tag, perhaps to make them more easily searchable.
However, Fanlore (God bless them) does provide a possible origin for when we first saw this trend move into fandom, if not the exact moment we switched gears from location to personality. During the height of the X-Files fandom—so early to late 1990s—fans put together guides on specific characters, most notably things like the Spotter’s Guide to the Common Mulder. These semi-non-fiction fics (that’s a brain teaser for you) laid out hilarious advice like how to spot predators of the Common Mulder, or how to protect them against Mulder Cruelty. There’s also, however, sub-species of Mulder including angsty!Mulder, sensitive!Mulder, HappySlut!Mulder… you get the idea. Though we obviously see early uses of the trend here—if not the exact beginning—it’s notable that the last example compounds two descriptors in a way we no longer see, at least not with any frequency. It’s not separating each characteristic with its own bang (as I discuss above) and in doing so isn't distinguishing “happy!Mulder” from “slut!Mulder.” Yet this isn't a list of entirely unique characteristics either. Those two descriptors are inexplicably tied. So for a while at least we got something in between the two possible forms.
At this point it’s perhaps worth pointing out that exclamation points themselves, separate from their role as connectors, have come under fire in recent years with scholars, fans, and everyday writers alike wondering when a few exclamations becomes too many. Is “Thanks!” okay? What about “Thanks!!”? And as mainstream internet slang continues to merge with various types of fan-specific language, who gets to decide these rules? I don’t have the answer, but I do feel strongly that an exaggerated sense of excitement or approval—“OMG!!!!”—is integral to the online fan experience, allowing us to express ourselves when, again, we lack the tone of voice to do so. Or, as Rebecca Black points out,
Emoticons (smiling and crying faces made of typographical elements), truncated spelling (‘u’, ‘luv’, ‘fanfic’), and repeated exclamation points index the readers’ knowledge of online social registers and also display their affiliation with the participatory and interactive nature of writing and reading in this space as they show strong support for the author (179)
This stylistic choice also helps reclaim the role of the “hysterical fangirl.” Long before Star Trek fans were deemed “Trekkies” they were just “groupies” instead, deliberately drawing on “The comparison to contemporary music’s young, female, and so also hysterically obsessed fans” (Mcardle). You women putting your paws all over our Sci-Fi. You’re just like those Beatles chicks! And that’s bad! Obviously. Well no, it wasn’t bad. Sorry, fake geek boys, women invented Sci-Fi. It is, however, true enough that we can be “hysterical” if that’s really the word we’re going for. I’d personally prefer “excited.” Even “passionate.” Yet none can deny that yes, there’s a certain level of energy embodied within fan expression. Using exclamation points to express that energy is just one way of saying, We’re here and no, we’re not going to change.
As for where the linguistic device is heading, that remains to be seen. TV Tropes claims that the practice is “starting to seep out from fanfiction,” but I still see it fairly consistently. Rather than fading away, I think the trend is simply changing course a bit. Meaning, not that we want to view one individual’s experience as objective fact, but I find it interesting that in another discussion of the bang a poster mentions that it’s “pretty much never seen on Reddit” (GreenCristina). Rather, this is a trend that seems to be tied primarily to tumblr and it’s archive sister, AO3. Which honestly doesn’t surprise me. Though numerous websites host various types of fan communities, tumblr has been at the center of transformative fandom for a number of years now. If any space were involved in not just keeping a specific fic practice alive but also helping it evolve for the modern age, I would expect that space to be tumblr.
As McCulloch points out in a post of her own, we’re now seeing the bang attributed to real people as opposed to just fictional characters—and no, I’m not talking about RPFs here. Phrases like “sober!me” or “dumbass!artist” crop up every once in a while. We’re now using this tool for self-expression in the exact same way we use it for fic: emphasizing a significant characteristic (This artist is Dumb right now and that’s all there is to say), or distinguishing one part of ourselves from another, just as we tend to distinguish canonical characterization from whatever we’re developing in fanon (Sober!me is a gem who stashed candy in my pocket for drunk!me). Beyond this the bang remains a tool primarily for expressing careers and A/B/O status in fics. More often then not I see it used for “mechanic!Dean” and “barista!Cas;” or “bottom!Cas” and “top!Dean," to give just a few examples. Although, generalized uses like “BAMF!Sam” and “Creature!Gabe” are definitely still a thing. Bangs as a concept might be hard to research, but examples—as they apply to fic anyway—couldn’t be easier to find. Just head on over to AO3, bring up a random page, and do a search for that good old exclamation mark. Most of what pops up will be in the tags.
Finally though there’s definitely something new going on. A change to the bang’s dynamic that I’ve seen in recent years but don't quite know how to explain yet. It’s this:
Theoretically speaking, this form isn’t necessary. Like the example above of "wing fic" vs. "wing!fic," there is—according to our general rules for the bang—no reason why you'd need to characterize the AU this way. It’s either a wing fic or it’s not. A coffee shop AU or it’s not. A Christmas fic or… okay that one actually gets a bit more complicated. You could absolutely have a fic set during Christmas that doesn’t embody the fluff-tastic storytelling we’d expect of most Christmas fics, so that one I buy. In general though? We seem to be attaching the bang to AUs just because it’s the Thing To Do Now, not because it’s working to impart any additional information. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not normally how these things evolve. Whether we realize it or not we use slang, acronyms, keyboard smashing, and the like because it’s serving some specific purpose. I’m just not sure what this new purpose of the bang might be.
Do you know? Tell me your thoughts! The bang is one, small example of the language we’ve collectively developed and continue to develop each time we head online. It’s not something that arises through just one person. The whole community has to be involved.
And the same goes for understanding it.
Image Credit/Works Cited
#5, #6, #7, #8: AO3 (I literally just grabbed these tags randomly a few days ago I'm so sorry "AO3" is all I've got as a source)
“Bang Path.” Techopedia, n.d. Web. <https://www.techopedia.com/definition/6138/bang-path>.
Black, Rebecca. “Language, Culture, and Identity in Online Fanfiction.” E–Learning, Volume 3, Number 2, 1 June 2006. Web. <http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.2304/elea.2006.3.2.170>.
“Characterization Tags.” TV Tropes. N.p. Web. <https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CharacterizationTags>.
Fanlore. “!” Fanlore, 23 Dec. 2017. Web. <https://fanlore.org/wiki/!>.
GreenChristina. “Where did the convention of putting an exclamation mark…” Reddit, 2014. Web. <https://www.reddit.com/r/OutOfTheLoop/comments/1qqsgy/where_did_the_convention_of_putting_an/>.
Mcardle, Molly. “This is How Star Trek Invented Fandom.” GQ, 21 Sept, 2016, n.p. Web. <https://www.gq.com/story/this-is-how-star-trek-invented-fandom>.
Min, Lillian. “The Strange Story of How Internet Superfans Reclaimed the Insult ‘Trash.’” Splinter, 19 May 2016. Web. <https://splinternews.com/the-strange-story-of-how-internet-superfans-reclaimed-t-1793856895>.
McCulloch, Gretchen. “Exclamation!compounds.” All Things Linguistic, 2013. Web. <https://allthingslinguistic.com/post/46453848763/exclamationcompounds#notes>.
Nentauby. “Hey what’s up with the ”!“ in fandoms?” Tumblr, 7 July 2014. Web. <http://nentuaby.tumblr.com/post/91061554847/hey-whats-up-with-the-in-fandoms-ie>.