Nowadays people feel comfortable identifying themselves as fans. I am a fan of U2, and I’m not afraid to admit it. There are fans of “Game of Thrones,” sports fans, and iced-coffee fans. But having such unbridled enthusiasm hasn’t always been considered a good thing.
Fan probably derives from fanatic, which means “characterized ... by excessive and mistaken enthusiasm, especially in religious matters,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (It comes from the Latin fanaticus, roughly “mad through divine possession.”) By the mid-17th century, this had become a derogatory term for Nonconformists, religious groups such as Calvinists and Quakers who did not follow official Church of England doctrine.
Fanatic eventually became more equal opportunity, and could be applied to any group you didn’t like and of which you were not a member – any of “our lunatic fanatic sects,” as Samuel Butler put it around 1680. Its shortened form “fan” made a brief appearance and then disappeared.
Baseball brought fan back, and when it reappeared at the end of the 19th century it had less of a negative connotation. It still reflected a mistrust of and devaluing of enthusiasm, but this zeal was thought to be simply odd, no longer dangerous.
A San Francisco newspaper reported in 1889 that “Stockton is noted for possessing the worst ‘fans’ in the country,” while another discussed how “The ‘fan’ uses his mouth and tongue whenever there is no occasion to use them. People would rather not listen to him but he is irrepressible.” We can see this attitude in other 19th-century words for such passionate supporters: “cranks,” “bugs,” “nuts,” and “freaks.” There was something suspect about being a fan.
In the 20th century, fan became a neutral and even positive term. Today almost everyone is a fan of something, and we tend to enjoy fans’ contagious passions. Unless they can’t stop talking about comic books or science fiction, and then contemporary slang still scorns them as “fanboys” or “fangirls.”
Being a fan is now so par for the course that people who are really passionate have coined a word to reflect their devotion: “stan.” This word has dark antecedents – it comes from a 2000 song about a fan who does some horrible things because he feels neglected by his rapper idol – but millennials and Generation Zers will identify themselves as stans of Ariana Grande or Britney Spears to differentiate themselves from run-of-the-mill fans. It has become a verb, too. If you admire someone or something (seriously or ironically) you can say, as one BuzzFeed writer did last winter, “People Are Still Drinking Iced Coffee Despite The Polar Vortex, And Honestly, I Stan.”