Evolution (or lack there of) of the definition of smarm

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Title: Evolution (or lack there of) of the definition of smarm
Creator: partly bouncy and commenters
Date(s): March 27, 2007
Medium: online
Topic: smarm
External Links: Evolution (or lack there of) of the definition of smarm, Archived version
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Evolution (or lack there of) of the definition of smarm is a 2007 post at Fanthropology by partly bouncy.

The post, and its commenters, discuss the history and usage of the term smarm.

The article uses The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm" as a reference source.

From the Post

"Definition and History of Smarm" was written by Kitty Woldow in 2002. It traces the origins of the term smarm as a fannish term back to a Star Wars fanzine circa 1983. The original context in a letter of comment, according to Kitty Woldow... Kitty Woldow then appropriated the term for her fan usage, assuming that it was a term already in use. She used it in several fandoms in fanzines after that including Riptide, Lethal Weapon and Quantum Leap. When Kitty Woldow got on-line, she took the term to the Sentinel fandom....

The term may have preceded her on-line presence. One of the earliest references I can is rec.arts.sf.tv.quantum-leap by Mary Anne Espenshade in June of 1994. This reference says "Accelerator Accidents #1 (1992 Fan Q nominee - Best QL Zine) Edited by Kitty Woldow - inventor of the fannish term smarm, so there is a *lot* of it in this zine."

It is probable that the term may have migrated earlier but I'm unable to find archives for the b5creative, virgule and Blake7@lysator.liu.se mailing lists which might be more complete than the Usenet archives available to me. Still, it seems somewhat telling that there are not more references in the correct context prior to Kitty joining on-line fandoms.

Contrast this to the terms slash and Mary Sue which had first appeared on the Internet by 1993 for slash with the Virgule mailing list and 1985 for Mary Sue in the comics fandom on Usenet. The term slash was first used in 1985 in the Star Trek fanzine Night Tonight, Spock.[1] The term Mary Sue was first used in 1973 in the fanzine Menagerie by Paula Smith.

It took roughly 12 years for Mary Sue to be used on-line, 8 years for slash to be used on-line, 11 years for smarm to be first used and 15 years for smarm to really gain traction as a term used regularly in fandom. The Mary Sue and slash early references indicate that both terms were already widely used on-line....

These terms arose at different times, took different lengths to have their usage popularized and to gain usage in on-line fandom. The terms Mary Sue and slash were appropriated and defined differently in on-line fandoms from community to community. Smarm, having taken longer to become popularized on-line and in general usage, did not seem to suffer from such linguistic Diaspora.

And that makes smarm unique. The definition has not changed much, if at all, as the term made its way on-line. The term hasn't appeared to gain widespread usage either outside of fandoms that have fanzine connections.

Four Speculations

The post's author asks: "Why did smarm's definition remain relatively intact while Mary Sue and slash have definitions that varied so widely and gained such widespread usage across multiple fandoms?"

The first is linguistic need. Mary Sue was a term that was needed by the community in order to critique fan fiction, to review fan fiction. Slash filled a need to define material by gender pairings which enabled easier weeding out of undesirable and desirable reading material....

The second reason is probably due to the size of the communities using the term. The primary fandom using this term seems to have been The Sentinel which, historically comparatively speaking, was not large. Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, X-Files were big during those periods and they never picked up the term...

A third reason why the definition probably has not changed is that, unlike some definitions, smarm has not been mentioned much in mass media, popular media discussions of fan fiction....

The last reason that I would speculate as a cause for lack of definitional change is that the fandoms which use the term are generally not first fandoms for most people. Sentinel fen came from other fandoms. First fandommers frequently are not aware of all the cultural intricacies of fandom when they become immersed in it.

Some Excerpts from the Comments

  • comment by nenena ("According to the nearest Random House Unabridged Dictionary, both "smarmy" and "smarm" are terms that date back to 1905. I've never really sensed a difference between how "smarm" is used inside fandom circles versus outside of fandom usage; to me, it's always just been a word. Honestly, before reading the article by Kitty Woldow that you linked, I had no idea that some people considered smarm to be a fandom-specific term.")
  • comment by xparrot ("The fannish definition of "smarm" is quite different to those actually in smarm-circles. The word "smarm" in regular English parlance has distinctly negative connotations - "smarmy" means slick or oily (personality type) and especially carries a feeling of hypocrisy, overdone and false emotion. "That used-car salesman is so smarmy." "Smarm" in fandom is a positive term referring to the expression of genuine emotion. It also can't really be applied to individuals but to stories, scenes, or relationships. This divergence can cause considerable confusion when a fan is talking to a non-fan, in my personal experience. It's more similar than the fannish meaning of "slash" to the traditional meanings, but it's definitely not the same thing....it's very fandom-specific. This particular fannish use of "smarm" is positive - I call myself a smarm-fan, and mean it genuinely, not ironically. But most smarm fen come from the *gen* sides of very specific fandoms; we're a tiny subset of fandom. I've never even seen it used in any anime fandom, at least not in the fannish way, except in passing by myself and a few others who were involved in certain Western fandoms first.")
  • comment by reddwarfette ("Ok, that's just bizarre. I've never seen the term applied to any fandom before and I am involved in a variety of them, so I'm assuming it is very fandom specific. But I have to say, the application of the word [in this case referring soppy fics] seems a bit weird when the definition means oily, slimy, sycophantic, unctuous, etc.")
  • comment by xparrot ("I suspect the lack of evolution of "smarm" is mostly due to it being a word with relatively low usage even in fan communities; fan-words tend to evolve when they're used by a lot of people, and "smarm" has never really gotten beyond a second-degree usage from Kitty Woldow (either fandoms she's in, or fandoms populated by fans formerly from the fandoms she was in.) I've never encountered it in anime fandom, except for from a few people who were in certain Western fandoms first. That being said, I have witnessed some evolution of the term, most specifically Versaphile's Stargate recs site, which caused a bit of a kerfuffle because it applies "smarm" to any kind of over-the-top character bonding, either gen or slash. I believe (I cannot recall for sure) that when the site first went online several people including Kitty Woldow jumped to defend the specifically platonic nature of smarm. The site choose to ignore them and still uses "smarm" as closer to the original, non-fannish meaning of "smarmy", but to my knowledge it's pretty unique in that.")
  • comment by partly bouncy ("The Stargate thing I did not know about. :/ I did read that Sentinel fandom went through a sort of anti-Smarm period because things had gone a bit over the top to the point of matching that original definition more. The Symposium article (and another article I didn't link to) both mentioned that as sort of asides as sort of, this subgenre of fan fiction has jumped the shark into badfic. It didn't seem to change the definition of the term from the examples I found so I wasn't sure how relevant it was to mention that.")
  • comment by dylantroodon ("my general impression is that smarm is basically genfic that reads like slash. But the thing is, why? Isn't reading about two characters' intense non-sexual bonding awfully, you know, boring and sappy? And why all the focus on making it "OMG totally nonsexual"—why not just G- or PG-rated slash?...the whole idea of a story about the strong emotional bonds of a friendship and nothing else still sounds incredibly boring and schmoopy. Like a PWP without the porn (Fluff Without Plot, perhaps?). I don't see the appeal there.")
  • comment by fides ("I should really let a non-slasher answer that, but I believe that the answer is because "they are not gay and don't have sexual feelings towards each other but that doesn't mean that they can't have really strong friendship bond and it is that amazing, pure friendship that is interesting" (or words to that effect). If you have a search in fandoms where this comes up a lot (Sentinel springs to mind, SG1 as well) then you will find discussions on this very topic.")
  • comment by izhilzha ("There doesn't have to be porn for a story about two characters' affection for each other to be interesting. Mind you, yeah, a story that is nothing but "smarm" loses my interest pretty quickly (unless it's an episode specific fic—a lot of Sentinel smarm falls into that category, kind of a what-happened-after-that). Otoh, if the display of affection/support happens within the context of a plot, I love it. But I'm a plotty-story kind of gal; even if I read porn, I can't imagine reading a PWP, because dang, how boring would that be? No plot? :-)")
  • comment by wneleh ("I think the nice thing about smarm being a category that people in TS fandom recognize is that you can have a bonding moment in TS fic be around something other than a severed artery, yk? I think it provides a framework/context/whatever for gentler, non-slash, non-h/c relationship-exploring fics.")
  • comment by rh andi ("As a self-proclaimed smarm writer and a zine editor, I will say that smarm without story (barring the aforementioned "what happened next" bit) is very much a PWP, just as a slash story only for the sex is. While feeding off the "what happened next" bit can often carry a good smarm story, the best ones spin a plot point off to create more angst within the storyline. Story without plot is hollow, non-nutritious white bread - it's like chewing paste.")
  • comment by ael68 ("Well, from a gen perspective, smarm in TS usually is plotless and schmoopy, but not always without merit. Often the stories are light hearted, or heavy on h/c, and the guys express their feelings in a much more wordy manner than usual. Some are quite 'smarmy' while others are 'feel good' stories, that make you go 'ahhhhh.'")
  • comment by partly bouncy ("I've seen the term being discussed in a lot of places but it isn't used in my fandoms. :/ Not a Sentinel fan. Also, not really interested in male characters. The definitions and discussion of that seem to indicate that the term tends to be used mostly between two guys so that really decreases my chances of seeing it. I was surprised at how often it appeared when I went looking through Google and Yahoo for it. Usenet archives, the term was used much less frequently in the right context and only in western fandoms. The people using it really seemed to connect it back to the original fannish usage. I would guess they were no more than two people away from Kitty Woldow.")
  • comment by xparrot ("I started using the word smarm myself because I had a similar experience as KW; there were particular moments in fiction that would hit a particular kink in me, and while these other terms usually included it, there wasn't a word for the moment itself. The trouble is that relatively few fen seem to have this precise kink, and it's, hmm, difficult to explain it to people who don't have it! "Gen," incidentally, I usually take to mean any non-pairing fic. Which can include h/c and buddyfic, but also horror, action, suspense, etc... All smarm is (by standard definition) gen, but not all gen is smarm. It's not called pre-slash because that would imply that eventually (whether written or not) the chars will have or will desire to have a sexual encounter; in smarm, neither partner has such feelings. The pleasure for the reader is in seeing an intense and close friendship (often familial/brotherly) bond; no sexual consumation is needed for the audience's satisfaction. Hence a lot of slashers get very frustrated with smarm, as they see it as denying (for no obvious reason) that consummation. Conversely, smarmers may be disappointed to see their favorite smarm pairs turned to slash, making brotherly affection/loyalty instead be about sexual desire.")
  • comment by partly bouncy ("A lot of things aren't spelled out in a historical sense to really understand how things happened. Your comments also makes the explanation as to why the fannish definition having been retained over time make more sense. It seems to be a bit of a driving force of one fan helping to keep it that way by nudging others to keep using that definition and getting others to do the same thing. (Which makes me wonder if Paula Smith had done the same thing with Mary Sue, if the original definition in fandom would have been retained...)")
  • comment by xparrot ("I suspect that part of the reason "smarm" hasn't caught on as a general fan word is because its non-fan meaning does have such negative connotations, and is close enough in meaning to confuse people (as evidenced by those commenters here who didn't realize it had an alternate meaning). I know some people who like the concept of smarm but will not use the word because for them it only has the original definition. If a term is popular enough (such as "slash", which to non-fans in my experience tend to make people think of slasher flicks and confuses people mightily!) its constant usage will overcome such rejection, but smarm never had a big enough following to accomplish this.")
  • comment by rh andi ("Two same-sex characters (generally - X-Files and a few other shows have managed to cross genders) having an "intense non-sexual bonding" is the draw to the smarm fam. These characters have a very INTENSE relationship, bit is NOT based around sex in any way, shape or form. The whole emotional RELATIONSHIP is different than in a sexual relationship, and the writer of smarm does not see sex happening or any sort of sexual draw between the characters. One might say that reading about two same sex characters is "awfully, you know, boring and sappy" as well. For some people, smarm ain't the charm.")
  • comment by hawkmoth ("Among some people not specifically involved in certain fandoms (especially in the late 80s), "smarm" was regarded as purple prosey, way over-the-top, hurt/comfort or buddy-buddy fanfic. There seemed to be a lot of it in Simon and Simon stories, and in later Real Ghostbusters zines.")
  • comment by xparrot ("This is a little misleading - Real Ghostbusters was one of Kitty Woldow's primary fandoms (not sure about S&S) so at least in the case of RGB, people were deliberately writing and labeling their writing "smarm" (Kitty put out the "Busting" v.1-2 RGB zines devoted to it). Fans not fond of the genre may have disparaged these smarm stories as purple prose, etc.; but they weren't the first ones to apply the label of "smarm".")
  • comment by rh andi ("The trick with Smarm is balance. Any story can be overbalanced, if not executed well, and there were some that even the hard-core smarmers cringed over (I seem to remember one night at Woldow's, having this very discussion....).")
  • comment by wneleh ("I don't think you and I write smarm so much as that the existence of intense smarm like "Beach" carves out room for the sorts of fics we write.")
  • comment by rh andi ("Part of it is that "smarm" as a defined concept goes back to the 80's, and many of those writing in those days have moved on in life - either because of family, jobs, or just gaffiated. Some of the good smarm writers have moved to new fandoms, and we who follow (and still call them friend) have followed along to read...but a lot of it is still more print than 'net. Us old fogies just can't get with it... ")
  • comment by rh andi ("As one of Kitty's friends and co-authors during this period, let me say that she did indeed utilize the term, meaning a warm, fulfilling sense of emotion that did NOT include sex or sexual love, as far back as the mid-80's. When Kitty and I wrote stories within our Lethal Weapon Universe (as found in issues of her "Doin' the Job" zine), they were most definitely defined (and planned) as "smarm," following that definition. She has utilized it through Quantum Leap, Lethal Weapon, Real Ghostbusters and Sentinel, that I can attest to with personal knowledge.")


  1. ^ "This is not correct (and we have discussed this previously and I have corrected it previously). The term became common orally from the early eighties on, as a way to verbalize the symbol "/". Eventually the word "slash" started appearing in print. The first printed reference I can find using the word "slash" is in a LoC to the S&H LETTERZINE #18, (February 1981), but that was an extremely rare reference. It didn't become common in print for several more years. Also, the name of that letterzine is NOT TONIGHT, SPOCK. It was the first K/S letterzine in the fandom." -- correction by klangley56 near the end of the comments