To Ship or Not To Ship: An explainer about the terms “ship” and “slash”

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Title: To Ship or Not To Ship: An explainer about the terms “ship” and “slash”
Creator: Flourish Klink
Date(s): August 17, 2016
Medium: online
External Links: To Ship or Not To Ship: An explainer about the terms “ship” and “slash”
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To Ship or Not To Ship: An explainer about the terms “ship” and “slash” is a 2016 essay/article by Flourish Klink.

"This piece brought to you by the Fansplaining podcast."

There are a lot of links in this essay, including many to Fanlore.

Some Topics Discussed

Some Excerpts

Recently, Merriam-Webster published an article about shipping [1] (not boats). They were tracking the noun “ship,” the verbal noun “shipping” and the verb “to ship” separately, with different dates of origin: while they dated “ship” to 1996 in the X-files fandom, they claimed that the verb version of “ship” (“I ship Olicity,” “do you ship Bella and Edward or Bella and Jacob?”) appeared in 2005. I… was not so sure.

Pretty soon, the magic of Twitter and Gretchen McCulloch had connected me with a metric fuckton of fans, linguists, and word nerds, and we were on a holy mission to find the first time “ship” was used as a verb. We fired up the Wayback Machine, looked through our old saved emails from the late 1990s, and started combing through Usenet archives. And we got some (but not all) of the answers!

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data on early uses of the term “altfic,” partially because while it still lives on in a few pockets of fandom (e.g. [the Pink Rabbit Consortium domain name [2]) it’s been superseded by “femslash.” People seem to think that this happened when Xena fans began watching Star Trek and shipping Seven of Nine with Janeway—but there’s no clear documentation.

What is clear is that by 2004, the term “femslash” was well-entrenched. Some people really don’t like this [3], feeling that it separates lesbians from other same-sex relationships in an offensive sort of way. But on the flip side, other people really hate it when people use the term “slash” as a catch-all to refer to queer pairings in general. We are definitely not going to come to a conclusion about this much-discussed topic right now. Just know that if you’re looking for stories about lady-pairings today, you probably want to search for “femslash.”

Back in the dark ages of fandom, when fanfiction was distributed through paper zines, there weren’t commonly-codified categories or ratings. That changed in 1977, when a fan named Mary Lou Dodge attended SekWester*Con and was outraged by the presence of slash and erotica. At that point, the shit hit the fan, and people started requiring age statements for people to purchase “adult” zines. Given that it was the 1970s, even the most innocuous slash zines were considered “adult.”

According to Fanlore, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that people began classifying fanfics as “slash,” “het” (meaning “story focused on a heterosexual relationship”) or “gen” (meaning “not focused on relationships”). The entry could use some work—there’s not a lot of clarity about when people started using the terms “het” and “gen.” But it resonates with my personal experience of fandom at that time. As romantic relationships became more and more important to fandom, yet queer relationships were still not entirely accepted, people wanted to know what exactly they’d be getting if they started reading a fanfic or a discussion.

Probably because of the stigma that lingered around queerness, there were often strong lines drawn between “slashers” and the rest of fandom. “Slashing” was, at least in some circles, considered mutually exclusive with “shipping.” For example, in 2004, T’mar wrote a meta that makes clear that, for her, “slashing” meant loving homosexual pairings and “shipping” meant loving heterosexual ones] — and which suggested that you could be a slasher or a shipper but not normally both.

This article obviously focuses on Western fandoms in English-speaking countries—the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia. There’s a rich history of fandom in other countries and other languages, and there’s other terms that go with them. But I’ve focused just on the narrowest slice, things I know well. It would be absolutely wonderful if someone wrote an article about the etymology and origins of words like “yaoi” and “yuri”—in fact, they probably have, but they’ve probably done it in Japanese, so I can’t read it.

Fan Comments

[anat]: Yay, this is awesome! I love this sort of research/meta/history SO much :D

I’m going to say here what I’ve said on twitter earlier: the only point at which I thought “wait, I disagree” is the statement “you might slash Batman and Superman, in which case you also ship Batman and Superman” appearing in an aside…

My use (and I would say, the use of my broader community of fans/fens) of the verb ‘to slash’ doesn’t necessarily entail shipping, because I might write a story — or produce another type of fan work— in which a certain pairing is featured, even central, without at any point feeling ‘shippy’ about that pairing.

Slashing a pair or group is, to me, the act of putting that pair in a fanwork (or a thought experiment, a tweet, etc), which can be done with hatred for the pairing, something I don’t think shipping entails. Such a piece could be conceived of as a way to tear down the pairing, advocate against it, or, without going to negative extremes, I could do it for just one experimental work where they, say, find themselves having hatesex, or are trying to date and it ends in disaster, all of which can be done without harboring the feelings I associate with shipping said pairing. Not to mention I can totally slash X with F for the purpose of a work produced as a gift without having strong feelings about the pair (and there’s also the works produced as a result of fandom auctions, etc).

This is obviously not to say that people who ship a certain pairing always want or produce HAE narratives for them — at all — nor that they can’t also produce works where dating ends up a disaster! Still, there’s a difference there for me in the meaning and usage of these verbs.

[Flourish Klink]:

Just to get it down here so other people can see it — yes! We had a wonderful exchange about this on Twitter, and perhaps there will be an addendum to the explainer that goes into this issue in more detail. But I think you’ve also expressed the difference excellently here. All I can say is that you’re right, I think, about the way many people use the terms today, and that I wish you had been one of my editors as we were workshopping the piece! :P

[Rose MyErotica]:

My fave post of the week! As a bisexual girl who writes mainly lesbian and hetero erotica, I struggle to explain why I love gay fanfic so much… but I just DO. The filthier the better. My current guilty pleasure is Aramis/Porthos (The Musketeers)… I think it’s all that suggestive swordplay! This post reminded me of a few I shipped before I even knew that’s what I was doing (Angel/Spike, oh yes) as well as some I’ll definitely be checking out… thanks for the memories, and the inspiration!

[Beatriz Couto]: amazing work.

and it’s crazy how the words mutate in other languages too. here in Brazil we use “shippando” (aka shipping, but with our gerund form); and I never saw slash as a verb here!

[Malory Beazley]:

Wonderful, wonderful article. A comprehensive guide to ships, shipping, and shippers. (Slash, too!) Thank you for mapping out the various uses of these lovely fannish terms, with interesting notes and GIFs a plenty.

[Elizabeth Kubeck]:

As an original member of the Gravediggers’ Union (a mid-1990s X-Files newsgroup) I enjoyed this one greatly. We did in fact use the term “shipper” in 1996, but those of us who didn’t want to see it acted out on screen referred to our preference as UST (Unresolved sexual tension).

[sally elane]: This is great!

Google groups has uses for “femmeslash” in 2000/2001 and “femme slash” back to the late ’90s. I remember in the early 2000s when there was a fight ongoing about which spelling was better.


  1. ^ Shipping
  2. ^ Pink Rabbit Consortium
  3. ^ ormondhsacker.tumblr