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Synonyms: Ship, relationship, couple, Coupling
See also: OTP, OT3, OT4, Pairing Name, Broccoli Test, Crossover Pairing, Rarepair
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Pairing refers to the characters who make up the romantic focus of a fanwork. The term often appears in headers and is a common search or filter term in archives. In most fandoms, the term is applied to stories where the focus is on an explored sexual or romantic relationship. Pairings can be heterosexual, slash, femslash, or non-binary. They may or may not be canon. Some fans do use the term pairing to refer to the characters in a friendship fic or smarm story where no romance exists.

In Japanese fandoms, the same concept is referred to as kappuringu (カップリング from the English word coupling), or CP in short. The shortened version is used in Chinese, too.[1]

Origins of Usage

In the early days of media fandom (which included Star Trek: The Original Series and The Man From UNCLE), the word "pairing" was not used in describing fan fiction, partly because the primary focus of fan fiction in this period was on creating stories that could play out as new episodes, whether there were romantic encounters in the storyline or not. "Pairing" seems to have come about as a result of the Star Trek fandom's recognition of slash after 1982. (There were also no age statements and no tags in this early period.)

A rare and early of the term was in 1985: "'Arcanum,' a new, bi-monthly letterzine dedicated to the exploration and enjoyment of the "oblique" premise... share your favourite pairings with us..." [2]

By 1992, the use of "pairing" was well established in the slash fanfiction world: for instance, "Perhaps I should mention at the [outset of my review of the fanzine Homosapiens Too that] there was a contest for most outrageous crossover pairing.[3]

The / and the x

From 'Go on and Kiss The Boy', an archive for Paris/Kim Slash Fanfiction:

See that / between Paris and Kim? That slash is more than a just a grammatical construct; it's a fanfic tradition, used to indicate a relationship between the two characters in question that goes beyond friendship (sometimes way beyond). That innocuous looking slash stands for sex. It stands for love. [4]

From a fan in 2018:

Back in the early days of netfic, there was a clear protocol (in some cases a bit ambiguous, but mostly it worked). Generally, for a het pairing, it was male first, then female, with a slash indicating a sexual/romantic relationship: Mulder/Scully, Kim/Torres. With a slash pairing, it was higher rank first: Chakotay/Paris, Paris/Kim. (For shows without clear ranks, it was often the order the names appeared in the title of the show, if any (Starsky/Hutch, Hardcastle/McCormick), or the most popular character first (Crockett/Castillo, Han/Luke, Mulder/Skinner).

AO3 doesn’t do it like that. Instead, it’s alphabetical. Makes sense, actually, but that means some codes are now backwards compared to the old way of doing things: Kim/Paris instead of Paris/Kim.

To make things more difficult, slashes really shouldn’t be used in Tumblr tags, except in certain circumstances. They have a special meaning, excluding the tag from searches. Which kind of negates the whole purpose of tags. It’s the same with hyphens, plus signs, or equals signs. Apparently, people use them when they don’t want people to find their posts when searching, but also want their posts to remain blocked from people who are blocking that tag.

So people have taken to using “x” instead as a pairing indicator: Paris x Kim. That works. Unless people are searching for Kim x Paris instead. I guess the solution is to use or search for both. Though that can get cumbersome if there are more than two parties involved. Paris x Kim x Torres, Kim x Paris x Torres, Paris x Torres x Kim, etc. [5]

Pairing Names

The most common way to indicate a pairing is "Character A/Character B," but other symbols such as x, & and + are used as well. Occasionally this leads to intra-fandom confusion as to whether an "A/B/C/D" fic is actually pairing off all those characters, or whether the author is just listing all the characters that are in the story. Portmanteaus or "name smooshes" are also common but disliked by many; see Pairing Name for more information.

Pairings vs. Threesomes and Moresomes

Pairing is sometimes used in a manner which presumes that the story is about a couple and will not focus on a polyamorous relationship, or threesome. Due to the common use of the term in headers, many threesome and poly stories list the characters in their poly relationship under the term pairing. Many of the stories posted for the Polyamory Big Bang[6] use Pairing in the header.

In 2010, the AO3 changed their headers to use the term Relationship to reflect the actual use of the field for poly groupings, friendships and other kinds of relationships in a story. The archive tags also support the use of Character A&Character B in the relationship field for friendship-focused stories. The reaction to the change was not wholly positive as some fans feel that the term relationship carries an automatic connotation of romance [7] and therefore is not precisely appropriate for all stories about two characters having sex; for instance, hatesex, non-consensual or dubiously consensual sex outside of an actual relationship.

Fandom Organization around Pairings

Common genres of slash based on pairing type include buddyslash and enemyslash.

Many popular pairings or ships have their own archives, communities, or even newsletters and more broadly-focused newsletters are often organized by pairing rather than just genre.

See also: Gen for more detailed discussion of the sometimes hazy distinction between pairing-focused fanworks and gen works.

Some Fans Are Not Fans of Pairings

  • "I don't mind romances and pairings, but I'd rather if they weren't the central plot. I really enjoyed really great stories that had wonderful plots and forward momentum, and the romance that was in it (if any) was organic and natural and not at all central. And I agree, those do seem hard to find lately. Possibly because of the way archives now seem to organize with pairing/gen/het/slash." [8]
  • "I have a story posted at Housefic and a pairing is a REQUIRED field - but everyone is too busy running around doing action/mystery stuff to be in love or lust. They recommend to post it as "gen", but this really isn't correct, either." [9]
  • "I think the problem might be that fanfiction is growing up if that makes sense. In other words, while there my have been a wide variety of stories that were told in the olden days,I wonder if there were more clear generic categories, so that Romance really was the huge category in which same-sex pairings could be placed. I'm not sure if there was no desire to tell stories with that adventure mystery and a random background same sex pairing or if there was no clear outlet and thus they weren't produced or if there wasn't an audience...and I'm not sure whether the sheer increase in numbers and the multifannish experience might have changed readerly and writerly needs or whether an influx of fans who came across fanfiction in unusual venues and look for slightly different things have expanded the types of stories that get written. Like you, I feel we have outgrown the labels and I really wish we could restrict slash and het to generic categories rather than descriptive "any same-sex or opposite-sex pairing." Because, I agree, that a large segment of writing is kind of unlabelable [is that a word??? *g*]" [10]

Further Reading/Meta


  1. ^ TheFaustianPact, in Please stop overuse the acronyms. r/fanfiction
  2. ^ from an ad for a proposed letterzine
  3. ^ Sandy Hereld post to the Virgule-L mailing list on Oct 19, 1992, quoted with permission.
  4. ^ from Go on and Kiss The Boy- Main, Archived version
  5. ^ “Kiss me!” “I told you, Tom, not while we’re on duty.”; archive link(June 10, 2018)
  6. ^ PolyBigBang, accessed September 24, 2010
  7. ^ Release Notes for Release 0.8.1, accessed September 24, 2010
  8. ^ The internet is for... ah, you know..., Archived version (post and comments about shipping, and pairing, history of terms, and prevalence) (2006)
  9. ^ The internet is for... ah, you know..., Archived version (post and comments about shipping, and pairing, history of terms, and prevalence) (2006)
  10. ^ comment by cathexys, recs, and meta, Archived version, post by cofax, March 21, 2007