TANSTAAFL is part of the Language of Fandom

Have you ever wondered what a SMOF is? Does filk sound like an inferior brand of fabric? Does your head spin with acronyms like GAFIA and TANSTAAFL? When you enter the sacred spaces of internet fandom, such as Tumblr, are you confused as to why people talk about their emotions like they are tangible things they can be struck in, like a body part? Welcome to the Language of Fandom.

Worry no longer, for we at the SCIFI.radio Institute of Linguistics are here to teach you why it’s cool to be a BNF, why ‘feels’ are a precious and prolific thing, and why you never want to be classified as a ‘mundane!’

Like many close knit communities, fandom has always had its own slang and inside references used in common conversation. With the mainstream acceptance of geek culture, fandom is developing a greater public face with the growing popularity of conventions, the Hollywood takeover of San Diego Comic Con, and the internet popularity of various sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book franchises. To that end, what was once a private language is becoming far more common, and remains something of a mystery to those who are new to fandom as a whole. It’s a language that is also evolving, entering not just fandom circles, but the common lexicon as internet fandom develops its own language, both similar to and widely different from that of its predecessors.

Let’s take a look at some of the more popular terms from the various sects of fandom, both old and new.


  • Meaning: An acronym for the maxim “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch,” which has its own meaning: nothing in this world comes without a cost.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: While you’ll see it mostly in chat rooms, message boards, and other text mediums, the full phrase can be heard in conversation.
  • Where It Came From: This is a reference to the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy can neither be created, nor destroyed, further implying that one cannot extract energy from a closed system and expect that system to continue unaltered. This renders perpetual motion machines an impossibility. While this phrase began finding its way into the public consciousness as early as 1933, as part of the fannish lexicon it was popularized in 1966, with the publication of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress as the title of Book 3 in the novel. Explained within the story, it plays a major part in conveying the libertarian themes that are central to the book.
  • A Corollary: TANSTAAFLBTACOAIYKWTL, an even longer acronym based on the original, which expands to “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, But There Are Cheap Ones Aplenty If You Know Where To Look”, which appeared, once again, in a Robert E.Heinlien book called Time Enough for Love, first published in 1973.


  • Meaning: Originally “fan folk music”, where the lyrics of existing songs are rewritten to fit a fannish theme. The word has since evolved to include music with original melodies and orchestration as well.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: Used commonly by fans in both printed and spoken forms, the word is most commonly used in environments where filk is performed, especially at fan club meetings or conventions. As a footnote to this, SCIFI.radio plays an extraordinary amount of filk in our radio stream, and we are the only radio station on Earth to do so as part of our station’s format.
  • Where It Came From: The word “filk” orignated in the 1950s. Lee Jacobs wrote and article titled The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music, with filk being a typo for folk. He could not get the article published because the bawdy lyrics quoted in it, but the typo became an in-joke among science fiction fans, and by 1953 the word “filk” was in use by science fiction fans to refer to a familiar song with rewritten lyrics.


  • Meaning: Originally, fannish words or vocabulary used by fans when conversing with one another, the subdialect of the science fiction fandom subculture. The word has since evolved to mean the vocabulary used by any fandom, and has grown beyond the original subculture that coined it. This term means, in essence, “the language of fandom”.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: Used commonly by fans in both printed and spoken forms.
  • Where It Came From: The origins of this word are lost in antiquity, relatively speaking, and probably came from the earliest days of fandom.


  • Meaning: A slang term for individuals outside of the fandom community. This is one of the oldest words in fanspeak.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: While you might see it occasionally online being used by a fan, this word is far more common in everyday conversation.
  • Where It Came From: The word has been used as a descriptor for members of the non-fandom community as early as the 1950’s. The word is utilized primarily for its meaning at face value: ordinary, unremarkable, and while it can be used in a derogatory context, generally describes individuals outside of fandom because they live more conventional, socially accepted social lives than the costumers, builders, and walking encyclopedias that are prevalent in fandom circles.

“Mary Sue”

  • Meaning: A story featuring a main character written as a wish fulfillment fantasy. Originally, a story written specifically by a female fan as a wish fulfillment fantasy, splicing her into story lines with a popular male character upon whom the writer presumably has a fan crush. The “Mary Sue” character is typified by uncanny perfection in everything they say and do. The term has since broadened to mean any obviously written wish fulfillment story or character where the intent by the author to insert him or herself into an existing fictional universe is uncomfortably clear.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: The term is usually used in print to describe the work of another fan, but is sometimes applied to a non-fan production or published work in a derogatory sense.
  • Where It Came From: The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story “A Trekkie’s Tale” published in her fanzine Menagerie #2. The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”), and satirized unrealistic Star Trek fan fiction. Such characters were generally original female adolescents who had romantic liaisons with established canonical adult characters, or in some cases were the younger relatives or protégées of those characters.

SMOF (or smof, verb: smoffing)

  • Meaning: An acronym for the title “Secret Master(s) of Fandom,” which generally refers to the unsung heroes of the fandom community that run conventions, work behind the scenes, or support the fandom community in some extraordinary way.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: Both online and in the real world. Oftentimes, the word is used as a verb when a fan says they will be “smoffing” at a convention, which generally refers to activities that take place behind closed doors.
  • Where It Came From: One of the earliest known public citations of SMOF is from an article published in the New York Times in 1971. Initially, the word had somewhat negative connotations, jokingly referring to a secret order of powerful fans who controlled the tides of fandom, or to those fans that were on a kind of power trip. The meaning of the word has changed, however, gaining positive connotations, and has even become a term of respect in fannish circles for those fans who are particularly active, influential, or exceptional in their given field of fannish activity. Variations on the term, such as BNF (or Big Name Fan), have even gone on to be shared with internet and media fandom.


  • Meaning: similar to SMOF, but more specifically refers to a well known fan, someone who has notoriety of some sort within the fandom community.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: While the term is still used within science fiction fandom, this term is also shared with the internet subset of fandom, where it’s used more often as a descriptor.
  • Where It Came From: The term antedates 1950, and began its life in science fiction fandom. While it started life as a complimentary descriptor, like SMOF, it eventually became a pejorative term, referring to fans with an inflated sense of their own self importance. This word has gone on to be adopted by internet fandom, commonly seen in places such as Tumblr where the usage of the word is all a matter of context.

GAFIA (verb: gafiating)

  • Meaning: An acronym for “Get Away From It All,” a term used to define the act of choosing to leave behind fandom and fannish activities.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: While the term originated in science fiction fandom, it is also now a common part of the internet fandom language.
  • Where It Came From: The term started in science fiction fandom, and initially referred to abandoning the mundane aspects of the real world in favor of engaging in fannish activities. Over time, it came to mean the opposite: turning away from fandom to focus on real life pursuits. The term has migrated into internet fandom as well, along with related terms such as FAFIA, or “Forced Away From It All,” which indicates that someone has been compelled to leave fandom behind against their will.


  • Meaning: The act of pairing characters in a romantic relationship in a way not explored in the original creative work, especially where the two characters come from entirely different works, i.e., pairing up Malcom Reynolds and Harleen Quinzel, or Mulder and Skully.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: This will be normally encountered in print or online, in stories or artwork created by fans that bring the two previously unliaisoned characters together.
  • Where It Came From: The actual term “shipping” was originated in the mid-1990s by internet fans of the TV show The X-Files, who believed the two main characters, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, should be or were engaged in a romantic relationship. Such fan fiction writers and artists called themselves “relationshippers,” at first; then R’shipper, ‘shipper, and finally just shipper.


  • Meaning: An abbreviation of the word “feelings.” Originally a fannish word, it has since broadened in scope to become general internet slang.
  • Where You’ll See/Hear It: This word springs directly from internet fandom, and while it can be seen in blogging communities such as Livejournal or used to classify certain fanworks on Archive Of Our Own, it’s most prevalent use is within the vernacular of Tumblr users.
  • Where It Came From: A derivative of the “I Know That Feel, Bro” meme, the use of the word in its own right had its origins on Tumblr. It was initially used to classify certain posts via the tag system as early as 2008, mostly posts relating to real life situations. Since 2013, however, most posts filtered through the “feels” tag on Tumblr are now fandom specific. The word has since spawned derivative phrases such as “drowning in feels” (the act of being overwhelmed by feels), “right in the feels” (the state of having one’s feels directly impacted, as if physically), and “I have a lot of feels” (the metaphorical possession of feels).

Just as fandom has evolved over the course of decades, so has its reach, and the reach of its language. Not only has science fiction fandom spawned new communities on the internet and influenced media fandom and the public consciousness, as well as been influenced by the public consciousness, it has left such a powerful legacy that the dialect is still evolving even as we speak. Every day, new memes give way to new slang terms, and those memes often find roots in early events that can frequently be traced back to the original collective that is science fiction fandom.

And to those of us who can call ourselves fans, new and old alike, the study of the words that bring us so much joy, and express our love of the things we hold most dear, will never go out of style.

The language of fandom is, of course, extensive, and there are long lists of fannish words and their definitions. It is worth noting that many of these words, like “corflu” (meaning “correction fluid”) have fallen out of use, while new ones are being added all the time. As with any subdialect of a spoken language, fanspeak is very much alive and well, and in a state of constant transition.

For more on the language of fandom, visit the Fancyclopedia.


Elizabeth Carlie
Elizabeth Carlie

Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.