Told  /  Etymology

Before ‘Fans,’ There Were ‘Kranks,’ ‘Longhairs,’ and ‘Lions’

How do fandoms gain their names?

The exact origins of the modern term “fan” are disputed, but most look to the 1880s, where it was first used by American newspapers to describe particularly invested baseball enthusiasts. But “fan” was just one of the words the press, leagues, clubs, and baseball enthusiasts themselves were using at the time. They were called “enthusiasts,” but also a whole host of other names, from “rooters” to “bugs” to “fiends” to “cranks,” sometimes spelled—as in the German word for “sick”—as “krank.”

“The Krank is a heterogeneous compound of flesh, bone, and base-ball, mostly base-ball,” begins Thomas Williams Lawson’s 1888 book The Krank: His Language and What It Means, a small, humorous glossary described by Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, as “baseball’s rarest book.” (Thorn has thankfully put a digitized version online.)

“The Krank cannot be mistaken for any other animal,” Lawson wrote. “His peculiarities are numerous.” Those peculiarities made for a noisy and notably participatory kind of fan culture: Kranks would heckle players, bang drums, and engage as much with each other as with the game. They shared insider lingo and knowledge, like how to bribe the ticket-taker to get into the more comfortable, better-positioned grandstand over the bleachers. They were known to outsiders—authorities, owners, reporters—as a group with an encompassing set of traits. Much like fans today, they were often treated as a monolith: one to be enticed because of their enthusiasms, and policed when those enthusiasms didn’t align with the desires of non-fans.

“How can we use instances of enthusiastic behavior in the past?” asks Daniel Cavicchi, an American Studies scholar who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. “How do we point to all of those and say, ‘This is connected to what we consider fandom today?’” Cavicchi, who began his academic career focusing on music fans, is now looking through history to find instances of fandom-like groups, from fire buffs to trainspotters to flower fanciers. “Clubs are formed, people meet regularly, they start doing the same things, and they develop their own language,” Cavicchi says. “All of the things that we associate with fandom today, from music to sports.”