Here Come the Gleeks!

The funny and punny language of superfandom, from Trekkies to Gleeks.

Exploring the playful and punny language of fandom, from Trekkies to Gleeks.

Though I worship at the altar of comedic goddess Jane Lynch, I will not be watching Glee when it returns to TV on Sept 21. I have never seen an episode, and I never will. Just thinking about a show where folks routinely burst into song makes me want to burst into flames. I will never be a Gleek—as Glee’s devoted fans are called.

And yet I’m definitely a word geek who is very capable of appreciating the term “Gleek,” a hall-of-fame word blend and one of many labels for a set of rabid fans. Such Deadhead-like terms are a badge of honor for the most fanatical of fans, and there seems to be a new one coined every day.

Without a doubt, the primordial predecessor of these terms is “Trekkie” (along with its lesser-known twin, “Trekker”). Star Trek fans set the standard for intense, obsessed cult fandom, and without those words, there probably wouldn’t be any X-philes or Avatards (as fans of The X-files and Avatar call themselves). Though “Trekkie” and “Trekker” appear to be perfect synonyms, they aren’t. A 1970 example collected in Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction shows the difference, as a writer confesses to “...acting like a bubble-headed trekkie (rather than a sober, dignified—albeit enthusiastic—trekker).”

Among Trekkers, “Trekkie” is used for the stereotypical Trek fan: the loser with Vulcan ears who never got a date but memorized every line of Yeoman Rand. Yet to the unwashed masses, “Trekkie” is pretty much the accepted term for any Trek devote. Trekkers lost this battle a long time ago. A similar war of words played out more recently as Twilight fans debated whether they are “Twilighters” or “Tri-hards.” Since I have it on good authority from friends and librarians that one of the primary messages of Twilight is “Domestic violence is awesome,” I’m going to ignore Twi-whatevers for the rest of this column and my life.

On a happier note, fans of The Big Lebowski are Achievers, after a word that pops up many times in the movie, mainly in contrast to The Dude’s non-achieving ways. Lovers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and other Joss Whedon productions are Whedonites. More specifically, fans of Whedon’s prematurely canceled Firefly are Browncoats, after a faction within that series. Appropriately, Lord of the Rings fanatics are “Ringers,” while Bob Barker dubbed The Price is Right fans “Loyal Friends and True.” Music-lovers get in on the fun too. Beliebers, Grobanites, and Glamberts get their boats floated by Justin Bieber, Josh Groban, and Adam Lambert respectively, while Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters give new meaning to that term.

Those music-loving factions may be riding high these days, but they have a long way to go if they’re ever going to match the KISS Army, who have been rocking hard, frequently, and out since the mid-seventies. Even older are the Deadheads. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to this non-prophetic 1971 use: “The Grateful Dead: Vintage Dead... For Dead ‘heads’... Passing the acid test of time will probably be the privilege of very few groups, and I don't think the Grateful Dead will be among them.” FYI, “deadhead” has had many meanings, the oldest going back to the 1500s.

No doubt the success of “Deadhead” helped “head” gain currency as the most common way to coin a word for a fan of any sort. Phish-heads and Parrotheads are devoted to Phish and Jimmy Buffet, and it’s easy to find examples of “Losthead” and “Battlestarhead” too. Some other very established words take this form, like “metalhead” and, in the political realm, “dittohead.” Though The Word Spy definition—“people who mindlessly agree on an issue or idea because it fits in with their ideology or because they are followers of the person who put forth the idea in the first place”—shows how “dittohead” has broadened, it began as a word for Rush Limbaugh fans. And with football season underway, we can’t forget the Green Bay Packers’ adoring Cheeseheads.

It’s interesting how many of these words have a hint—or a heaping helping—of insult. “Deadhead” doubles as a flat-out synonym for numbskull, while “Avatard” contains one of our most popular and offensive suffixes. The stigma of “Trekkie” is well-known, and over the years, “Monsters” are the kind of folks who usually get chased by pitchfork-wielding villagers. “Cheesehead” was an insult for a person from Wisconsin before it was adopted by Packers fans. It’s only recently that “geek” has taken on a positive connotation, but “Gleek” still sounds a little like someone who bites the heads off chickens in a freak show—or a Trekkie.

This subversion of accepted meanings is part of being a Gleek or Lostaholic. The thought process goes something like this: “Society thinks being a deadhead is bad? Well, society sucks—being a Deadhead is great.” True, devoted fans end up making their own societies based on narratives or songs that make more sense to them than the popular ones about family, flag, and the Lord Baby Jesus. Flipping a word on its head is just part of the fun.

via Alan Levine / Flickr

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