Only the most pop culturally isolated English speakers don’t know what the word “stan” means. Its origins lie in Eminem’s 2000 hit song “Stan,” about an overzealous fan, and has come to describe anyone who takes their love of a particular artist or entertainment franchise to new extremes. (For Eminem’s fictional Stan, portrayed in the music video by actor Devon Sawa, that extreme meant murdering himself, his girlfriend, played by Dido, and their unborn child by driving their car off of a bridge.) The use of “stan” as a noun gradually gained popularity.
Though Eminem gave the world the image of Stan, Nas showed the world how to put "stan" to work, having used it in his classic 2001 diss track “Ether": "You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan." His is the first recorded usage of "stan" as a label (and a pejorative one) for an obsessive fan rather than the name of the fan himself. From there "stan" slowly took off, and while the noun's pejorative meaning remains, the murderous intent it was originally associated with has nearly disappeared. Stans all over the world label themselves as such to express just how dedicated they are to a particular artist and their fandom.
Today, the word “stan” is just as popular as a verb as it is a noun, which got us wondering, who was the first to make this linguistic transformation? The advent of the internet has meant that the evolution of words, and slang in particular, takes place and spreads faster than ever before. For example, the phrase “on fleek,” according to website Know Your Meme, has actually been around since the early 2000s and was popularized by a viral Vine created by user Peaches Monroee in 2014. Despite being around for years, when the phrase entered pop culture its use spiralled out of control, and was subsequently coopted by celebrities and corporate marketing departments, sparking important discussions of ownership and appropriation of black youth culture. But it also shed some light on how word origins are determined in the digital age. UrbanDictionary and social media apps have taken on an important role in recording and tracking language usage, and thus have become key resources in the field of lexicography.
In the case of “stan,” Eminem named obsessive stalker fans for us, but it was consumers of that content that gave the word a new life. The first definitions of it as a verb don’t appear in UrbanDictionary until 2008. One posted in April of that year, seems to be personally motivated: “The act of being a complete asshole to somebody for no reason whatsoever.” Another posted in November is similarly personal, but offers the word’s common definition today: “To Stan: i.e. Obsess over Stan Shunpike. I can't believe I'm actually Stanning.”
But according to the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks the historical usage of words, the first recorded use of “stan” as a verb that they have found so far was in a tweet from April 2008: “I stan for santogold. I may even like her more than MIA.” It got no replies, no retweets, and no likes, but could nevertheless prove to be an important historical artifact should “stan” make it into the OED. For now, though, it lives in the OED’s free online counterpart, Oxford Dictionaries, which focuses on current word usage, as well as the OED’s “watch list” — nearly 40,000 words strong — since 2010.
Twitter is a relatively new source for citations for the 133-year-old historical glossary, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for the OED. In the 19th century, lexicographers alone had access to the vast catalogue of index cards that recorded word use and origin from various written sources. But Martin said the internet, and social media in particular, have democratized this process: “Now we're using a lot of data that's available to anyone who chooses to look at it. That's a great thing because it allows the general public to correct us when we're wrong and provide us with more information.” Additionally, conversational online sources like Twitter preserve informal uses of language that, before the internet age, were simply lost to time. “If you think about the slang of kids in the late 19th century or the early 20th century, if young people are using slang terms amongst themselves they're not leaving much of a record of them. Maybe they write them in a letter to each other, but probably we have no record that these words ever existed at all,” Martin said. “Any slang that you're looking at after Twitter you have this amazing record of just ordinary people communicating with each other in a public way. So now, even words that aren’t popular in mainstream publications can have their histories preserved and tracked.”
In the case of “stan” and its evolution from noun to verb, Martin said the 2008 tweet can’t be credited as the first time the shift happened, but rather is evidence that by that time, “stan” the verb was already in common use in certain online and real life communities and was beginning to spread. “One thing that makes it easy for words to shift in English is that we don't have a specific set of endings for nouns and verbs,” Martin said. “Stan noun becomes stan verb just by you using it that way… There's not a lot of morphological change that's required.”
Parsing word origins is by no means a perfect science, but social media has helped lexicographers more than anyone could have predicted. So while modern dictionaries are still imperative historical records, they wouldn’t be nearly as complete if it weren’t for all of us sharing our everyday conversations and thoughts via messages, posts, and of course tweets. “Stan” is far from the only modern word to have its origins and evolution so closely tracked on social media. For example, the first usage of the word “tweet” known by the OED is a 2006 tweet that read, “Thanks for the new Twidget and knowing who likes my tweet and who don’t.” (The tweet has since been deleted.) But looking back on its well-recorded, pinpointable history, “stan” is perhaps one of the best examples of how pop culture and social media not only introduce new words into the mainstream, but record their evolutions, as well.