Eminem-inspired ‘stan’ added to the Oxford English Dictionary
It’s official: as of June 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary now includes a definition of stan, ‘an overzealous or obsessive fan, esp. of a particular celebrity.’
The dictionary’s entry page notes that this sense of stan has its origins in the 2000 song ‘Stan’, by US rapper Eminem. In the song, Stan – short for Stanley – is rapper Slim Shady’s self-proclaimed biggest fan. Stan models himself after his idol, attends his shows, watches his press appearances in a shrine-like basement, and writes countless letters to the rapper that go unanswered, before ending his and his unnamed pregnant girlfriend’s lives by driving his car off a bridge. In a final twist, the song closes with Slim Shady responding to Stan’s letters with one of his own, unaware of the tragedy.
You would be forgiven, however, for thinking this all rather familiar – hasn’t the addition of a dictionary entry for stan been reported in the media before? It all comes down to the differences between the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Oxford’s free online dictionary of English – part of Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO)*. Allow us to explain through the mysterious case of stan:
In May 2017, music trivia website Genius noted in a Behind the Lyrics track that, thanks to Eminem’s song, stan had been included in ‘the Oxford dictionary’. This prompted a number of global news outlets to report that the popular 21st-century coinage had been added to the OED. However there was one problem: the word wasn’t in the OED at all.
Instead, it had been added to ODO over a year before in early 2016; that was the dictionary these articles were referring to. It was only in June of 2018 that the word was officially brought into the OED: a nearly two-year gap between the dictionaries.
We say ‘dictionaries’ because the OED and ODO are indeed two separate dictionaries – each dictionary has its own team of editors – and there are several key differences between them.
First and foremost, ODO is a dictionary of current English, which means that it’s not intended to cover every English word throughout the full 1000-year history of English – unlike the OED, which is a historical dictionary. ODO focuses on more modern meanings of words – the most important and common uses being listed first in an entry – while the OED records all core terms from Old English to the present day.
Another difference can be seen in the way the two dictionaries give context to a word’s definition. In ODO entries each word is linked to a set of sentences sourced from our corpus so you can see how people are using the language today. OED entries, by contrast, are illustrated by a set of quotations that begin with the first known use and sometimes span many centuries to provide more recent examples.
And finally, it often takes more time for words to enter the OED than ODO. This point is particularly relevant in the case of stan because words are not usually added to both dictionaries simultaneously and so this can lead to situations in which a word may be found in one dictionary and not the other.
Why? Actually, delay on the part of OED is intentional and in line with its mission. When words are added to the OED they become part of our permanent record of the English lexicon, and so are regarded as having significance as part of the language of our time. You can see why OED editors are careful about what’s added and tend to wait until a word has a bit of history behind it: the process of selecting, researching, and documenting the biography of each word can be complex and painstaking.
The case of stan is not the first time there has been confusion over ODO and the OED and it probably won’t be the last. However, even if it does sometimes lead to misunderstandings, we are proud to be able to serve different readers with different needs: whether you’re looking for the comprehensive history of a word, or checking in on the latest slang, we have a dictionary for you.
*please note that while we no longer offer our free site, our most up-to-date content is available through Lexico, or through Oxford Dictionaries Premium.
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.