words : Fan

Last week's case of Matthew Simmons, the football fan kicked by Eric Cantona and later imprisoned for violent behaviour in court, will not have helped the reputation of fans in general. But then they didn't have much of a good name at the start. Fan was short for fanatic in the 17th century, fanatics in those days being mostly religions maniacs of one sort or another, so called because fanum was the Latin for a temple. Now that football is internationally accepted as the religion of the people, I suppose the derivation still has the ghost of a point left in it.

However, this shortening of fanatic never really took on and seems to have been forgotten for about 200 years until it popped up again, quite independently, in the United States; this time the subject was not religion but baseball. By 1914 it had come home to England, wrapped in quotation marks to suggest it was a bit of a foreigner, to describe soccer enthusiasts.

By then fanatic was no longer an unkind word; and nowadays most of us are fans of something or someone. The two forms of the word, the short and the long, have in any case parted company. We don't much think of fanatics when we speak of fans. It would be interesting to know how long the divorce took. No one who talks (if anyone still does) about a rave- up or other excitement as "having a gas" remembers that it may have begun by being short for an orgasm (or that sods once came from Sodom). I have an idea that a cat, meaning a jazzman, was originally short for cataleptic, a catalepsy being a sort of trance, but there can't be many cats who would believe that now, and I don't expect any fan mail on the subject.

Nicholas Bagnall