To Ship or Not To Ship

An explainer about the terms “ship” and “slash”

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You can’t talk about television these days without talking about shipping. Every pop culture media outlet in the world is using the term, from Tech Insider to Wired to the A.V. Club to the Boston Globe. If you watch Arrow, you know what Olicity is: the romantic pairing between Oliver and Felicity. And even if you don’t, if you just like to flip through channels, you might have landed on the MTV Fandom Awards and discovered that it won Ship of the Year.

Tyler Posey hosted the 2016 MTV Fandom Awards, where he doled out the “Ship of the Year” prize. This was ironic in several ways too boring to discuss in this explainer.

Recently, Merriam-Webster published an article about shipping (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!

A definition of “ship” (the noun)

Before we can get into the question of where the word “ship” first appeared, we ought to all get on the same page about what it means. Here’s my definition of “ship” as a noun:

ship (noun)
Two or more people or fictional characters who are (either in fact or in fantasy) paired (or grouped) intimately, sexually and/or romantically; often referred to with the two names on either side of a virgule (e.g. Harry/Hermione), by a portmanteau name (e.g. Olicity), or by another widely accepted name (e.g. Stark Spangled Banner for Tony Stark/Steve Rogers/Bruce Banner). Also sometimes known as a “pairing,” even (confusingly) when it includes more than two people.

So you might say, “My favorite ship is Poe/Finn, from Star Wars.”

There’s a few things to note about this:

  1. A ship can be two people, but it can also be more than two people. Popular threesomes are Harry/Ron/Hermione in Harry Potter, Jack/Will/Elizabeth in Pirates of the Caribbean, and Poe/Finn/Rey in Star Wars. But why stop at three? What about Frodo/Sam/Merry/Pippin in The Lord of the Rings, or all five members of the boyband One Direction, or all six members of the Avengers in the Avengers movieverse? The more the merrier!
  2. Ships aren’t limited to fictional characters. You could consider your parents to be a ship, or the members of your favorite band, or two actors who you think are secretly having an affair… anyone!
  3. A ship can be canonical (e.g., in Firefly, Wash and Zoe are married) or expected to be canonical (e.g., for most of The X-files, there was a reasonable expectation that Mulder and Scully might get together—and in fact, they eventually did). Other ships can be noncanonical (e.g., in Harry Potter Ron and Hermione eventually get married; Harry/Hermione shippers, on the other hand, prefer to imagine a different outcome) or even anticanonical (if you like to imagine Hillary Clinton having hatesex with Carly Fiorina, be my guest—there’s some pretty great fanfic about that).
  4. When you start reading about ships, you might encounter another term—OTP. This means “One True Pairing,” that is, your favorite ship, the one you’ll support till you die. In like fashion, there’s OT3: “One True Threesome.” And OT4. And OT5. And so on. The opposite of an OTP, the ship you absolutely can’t tolerate, is a NOTP. (NOTP doesn’t stand for anything; it’s just a portmanteau of “no” and “OTP.”)
  5. If you are a person who believes two characters ought to get together with every fiber of your being, you’re not a ship. They’re a ship. You’re a shipper.

The origin of “ship”

The term “ship” came from a particular pairing—at least according to fannish legend. X-files fans who wanted to see Mulder and Scully get together (and were therefore into MSR, the Mulder/Scully Relationship) were deemed “relationshippers,” eventually shortened to r’shippers or shippers. (People who didn’t want them to get together were called noromos—a shortening of No Romantic Moments.) There’s an early use of the term “r’shipper” from Amy Schatz on alt.tv.x-files.creative in April 1996:

I think that everyone, both R’shipper’s and Non R’shipper’s alike, can enjoy this story. :D
D’awwww.

In addition to “shipper” (a person who wanted Mulder and Scully to get it on), the word “ship” also was in use to mean the romantic pairing of Mulder and Scully as early as September 1996, as in this Usenet post by John A. Coffin (which, by the way, is cited in the OED):

If CC&Co [Chris Carter & Company] suddenly changed their minds and wrote a ‘ship into the show, I wouldn’t run to my room and pout, but my choice between the two leans toward the non-ship side.

Now, there’s some debate about the origin of “shipper” and “ship”—some people have claimed that the terms come not from X-files but from Lois and Clark fans who wanted to see the titular Lois and Clark get together. But neither I nor anyone on FanLore have managed to find a citation for this, so we’ll leave it be.

What we do know is that the terms “shipper” and “ship” started to be commonly used in reference to pairings other than Mulder and Scully sometime around 1999. Garson O’Toole, of the amazing American Dialect Association listserv, has found the earliest example so far, the author’s note of a Voyager fanfic from alt.startrek.creative.erotica.moderated:

Authors note: First I got the idea for this story from “I don’t have to wonder”
by Timothy Hood Second let me thank Karah for her beta one day I’ll get my Grammar right. Third let me warn you K/T shippers my friend who ships this couple Pissed me off so I stared writing this. Aside from that I welcome any and all feedback and or helpful suggestions.

Ben Zimmer found this example in Harry Potter fandom, a delightfully homophobic comment from November 4, 2000, on the Paradigm of Uncertainty mailing list:

And as to Ron/Harry shippers- let ’em ship. I know that JKR would never screw up a perfectly lovely series like HP because she wanted to make the main characters boyfriends. That would instantly make me set down the book and run screaming.
Surely you wouldn’t run screaming from these lovely lads?

And that brings us to the next question—the verb form of “ship.”

A definition of “ship” (the verb)

Just in case you aren’t the kind of person who easily verbs nouns, here’s a definition of the verb version of “ship”:

ship (verb)
To pair (or group) people or fictional characters intimately, romantically and/or sexually, or to create a intimate pairing (or grouping) between at least two people or fictional characters.

So you might say, “In Star Wars, I ship Reylo,” meaning that you imagine Rey and Kylo Ren together; or “I ship JediStormPilot,” meaning that you want to see Finn, Poe and Rey in a happy triad. Or you might make it into a verbal noun, “I’m a JediStormPilot shipper.”

The major difference in this, my definition, and Merriam-Webster’s? OT3s, OT4s and OTmores. While the good ol’ dictionary sticks with traditional relationship formation, the world of fandom is full of polyamory, and so “to ship” must include the possibility of multiple partners.

The origin of “to ship” (the verb)

Even before people started using the term “ship” to refer to things outside the X-files fandom, the word had been verbed. For example, this post from January 1998, on alt.tv.x-files.creative, by Laura Capozzola:

To ship or not to ship jerks everyone’s chains. It seems like every phile has an opinion about it one way or another. It’s perfect teasing fodder for the master tactician [Chris Carter, X-files creator]. For playing the shipper card so diabolically in Season 5, I have to salute him.

However, it’s pretty clear that “to ship” here means “to write Mulder and Scully as having a relationship on the X-files TV show.” That’s not what “to ship” means today. Today, shipping can just take place in our fantasies—it doesn’t have to actually appear on our TV screens. In fact, this shift happened pretty quickly. Remember that comment by Sara Beth Brooks in 2000?

And as to Ron/Harry shippers- let ’em ship. I know that JKR would never screw up a perfectly lovely series like HP because she wanted to make the main characters boyfriends. That would instantly make me set down the book and run screaming.

Clearly, the author considered Ron/Harry shipping to be just as valid as Ron/Hermione—even though she doesn’t think that J.K. Rowling would ever make her main characters gay for each other.

Within just a couple years of that post, we see “ship” as a verb all over. By 2002 we’ve got it used in every possible way on the FictionAlley Park forums. It leaves the Harry Potter space and spreads everywhere; for example, by 2004, we’ve got Angel/Spike shippers using it:

Finally, I’ve been asked why I personally ship Angel and Spike. Frankly, that answer is much simpler. The first fanfic I ever read was Angel/Spike slash. I’ve been a shipper since the glory days of School Hard. I waited impatiently for six long years, but Joss came through for me in the last season of Angel- in spades.
Well, we can’t argue with that.

Uh oh. A new term appears. What’s this “Angel/Spike slash” she talks about?

A definition of “slash”

Well, first of all, slash is not a new term. In fact, it predates “ship” by more than twenty years. But we’ll talk about that in a minute.

Like “ship,” “slash” can be a noun or a verb. To wit:

slash (verb)
To pair or group at least two people or fictional characters of the same gender intimately, sexually and/or romantically. Usually, the people or characters involved are male.

So you might say, “In my favorite story, the author slashes Finn and Poe.” Or, “I slash Finn/Poe.” Or you might make it into a verbal noun: “I’m a Finn/Poe slasher.”

slash (plural noun)
Fanfiction stories that include a romantic or sexual relationship between at least two people or fictional characters of the same gender as a main element. Usually, the people or characters involved are male; a related term in Japanese fan culture is “yaoi.” (Stories about two women are called “femslash” or, rarely, “altfic” or “saffic”; a related term in Japanese fan culture is “yuri.”)

So you might say, “I love reading Finn/Poe slash.”

Important to note:

  1. It is never accurate to refer to fanfiction that isn’t focused on a queer pairing—almost always a male pairing—as “slash.” Don’t do it.
  2. There’s a long-standing discussion about whether “slash” mostly refers to characters who are canonically straight. But that’s clearly not the way it’s used these days, at least — Jack/Ianto is a canonically gay pairing in Torchwood, and it’s absolutely considered slash.
  3. Slash is not necessarily explicit any more than other fanfic is necessarily explicit—and only 17.8% of fanworks on the Archive of Our Own are labeled “explicit,” so there you go.
  4. While “slash” (the verb) is almost exactly like “ship” (the verb) except that slash is specifically queer, slash (the noun) is a plural noun referring to a subset of fanfiction stories, whereas ship (the noun) is a singular noun referring to a particular romantic pairing or grouping.
  5. People like to argue about whether slash stories are focused on romantic relationships or whether they simply include romantic relationships. This is an argument that we are not going to settle in this explainer. I’ve tried to split the difference in this definition.
  6. Slash (verb or noun) almost always refers to stories about men. Stories about women are usually called “femslash,” and the verb slash is rarely used—you might slash Batman and Superman, in which case you also ship Batman and Superman, but you might not slash Regina and Emma (from Once Upon a Time)—you definitely ship them. More about this later.
That’s what BATMAN VS SUPERMAN needed to be a hit! Someone call Zac Snyder.

The origin of “slash”

First of all, it’s important to know that the term “slash” predates the term “ship” by at least twenty years. The term comes from the use of the / between names—like Kirk/Spock—to mean that the characters named shared a particularly intense (but not necessarily romantic) relationship.

That “not necessarily romantic” part changed quickly. Pretty soon, the slash meant, well, getting it on. There’s an example of this use of the term happening as early as 1975 in The Halkan Council (a Star Trek letterzine), identifying the idea of sexy K/S as being current in 1974 if not earlier:

Diane Marchant wrote an article on the Kirk/Spock homosexual love affair premise that’s been buzzing around fannish conversations for at least a year.
It’s undeniable.

It wasn’t only Kirk and Spock who got the slash treatment, of course: S/H for Starsky and Hutch and B/D for Bodie and Doyle in The Professionals, are just two examples. Fans say that the term “slash” was used verbally but not in writing until the early eighties, at which point people began to just use / (the virgule alone) and then (finding the virgule to be kind of irritating) started typing out “slash.”

By the eighties, slash clearly meant the romantic pairing (or grouping) of men. Unfortunately, it’s not well documented when the term “femslash” came into being. There’s no mention of it that I’ve found on searchable Usenet before 2002, but based on the context of that 2002 mention, we know that it was in common usage.

Actually, it was probably in use before 1995, because Xena: Warrior Princess, became huge in the 1990s, and naturally a large fanfic community grew up around it—and especially around the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. But most fans weren’t from the same ‘zine culture that had spawned Kirk/Spock, Starsky/Hutch and other classic slash pairings, so they weren’t using the same terms. They invented their own: “altfic.”

Just look at those… onions?

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) 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, 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.”

Shipping, slash, het and gen

So today, “shipping” is a broad umbrella that covers slash, femslash, and everything else. But it hasn’t always been that way!

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.

That was in 2004. Today, things are different. “Het” and “gen” are still in use, but much less commonly; “shipping” as a term clearly encompasses all types of romantic relationship. For example, when we look at the nominees for MTV’s 2015 “Ship of the Year” award, the heterosexual ships are Olicity (Arrow) and Bamon (The Vampire Diaries), but the list is actually mostly queer: Sciles (Teen Wolf), Emison (Pretty Little Liars), Karmy (Faking It) and Clexa (The 100).

Gone too soon.

Polyamorous ships are also more popular than ever, confusing the matter more — for example, JediStormPilot (Finn/Poe/Rey, from Star Wars) isn’t slash (it features characters of mixed gender) but it’s not purely heterosexual either. So it doesn’t make as much sense to segregate “slash” from “shipping.” It seems likely that these changes are tied to changes in the acceptance of queerness in the United States.

One last note….

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!

Also, words are defined by use. So these definitions might be wrong in the future, and they might be wrong among some people right now. Let’s talk about it! Email me! Or even better: leave notes. Medium is good at that.

This explainer couldn’t have gotten written without the help of the aforementioned Ben Zimmer and Gretchen McCulloch, but lots of other people contributed too, mostly on Twitter as I was ranting about these topics late at night: Aja Romano, Elizabeth Minkel, Heidi Tandy, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Morgan Dawn, Matt Schneider, Maz, Amy Kathleen, Samantha Pennington, Lynne, Jordan Ellenberg, Elinor Gray, Chelsea, Michele Tepper, Erika, wendy_d, Linda, Anna, Passeriform, Meag, Zvi, and Shawn Alexander Allen.