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We’re ‘fans,’ not ‘fan bases’

We must pray that this plague does not bleed over into the life of the Church. “Faith community” is a mild skid into faux-sociologese, but more-or-less tolerable.

(Image:Kyle DeSantis/Unsplash)

Amidst the sundry aggravations of contemporary life in these United States, few have such a cringe-inducing effect on me as a ubiquitous neologism that appeared eight times in a November column in the Wall Street Journal. The article in question speculated on the future contract possibilities of the wondrous Aaron Judge, whose 2022 campaign with the Yankees may have been the greatest offensive season in baseball history. But there is offensive, as in producing home runs and RBI, and then there is offensive, as in linguistic butchery. If you have any feeling for the beauty of the English language, brace yourself. What follows is akin to fingernails scraping down a blackboard:

“…his value to the Yankees or Giants includes more than simple run creation — it also represents a chance to prove to their restless fan bases that they are serious about winning titles.”

“Both clubs are feeling pressure from their respective fan bases to deliver a winning, exciting team…”

“Then there is the additional money they may be willing to spend to have him on the roster [to demonstrate] a commitment to winning to their angsty fan bases.”

“His presence will almost certainly go farthest in engendering goodwill between a front office and their fan base…”

“Their fan base has come to see owner Hal Steinbrenner as unnecessary[ily] frugal when it comes to roster building….”

“Judge is the most valuable homegrown player the Yankees have had since Derek Jeter and the organization would further erode trust with their customer base if they lose a bidding war to retain him.”

“The Giants find themselves in a similar position to the Yankees in needing to convey a message to their fan base this winter.”

“Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said earlier this month that club ownership hasn’t given him a ‘directive’ to sign a star player to appease their fan base…”

Enough already.

There is not a single instance in this farrago of faux-sociologese where the word “fans” (or in one case, “customers”) would not have sufficed to a) convey the meaning of the people being described and b) detoxify the prose. Yet throughout the sportswriters’ guild, “fan base” is now universally deployed when “fans,” which worked well for decades if not centuries, is called for. And if the Journal’s Lindsey Adler embodies the future, this barbarism will befoul other perfectly acceptable nouns, such as “customers.”

I think we have the otherwise enjoyable phenomenon of March Madness — college’s basketball’s annual championship tournament — to blame for this wretchedness. For if memory serves, it was longtime March Madness commentator Clark Kellogg who first began to deploy the terms “body of work” (previously known as “career”) and “fan base.” I initially thought these oddities innocent if grating to the ear. But they have now achieved a status in the corruption of English that reminds me of Churchill’s description of the Germans sending a certain Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov back home from his Swiss exile in a sealed conveyance in 1917: “Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city.

All right. I exaggerate. But perhaps the exaggeration drives home the point. “Fan base” is ghastly English and its constant use debases one of this country’s finest cultural achievements — elegant sports writing of the sort found in Baseball: A Literary Anthology and The Great American Sports Page, both published by the Library of America. (The former includes John Updike’s classic essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” a majestic combination of reminiscence, reportage and eulogy that would have been D.O.A. if entitled “Boston Fan Base Says Goodbye to Ted Williams.”)

Why “fan base” and “body of work” have stuck when they are so painfully discordant is a mystery to me. Perhaps 21st century sports writers and TV talking-heads imagine that sounding like junior professors deploying bad English translated from convoluted German prevents their being dismissed as dumb jocks and locker room hangers-on. If that is the intention, the effect is the exact opposite.

We must pray that this plague does not bleed over into the life of the Church. “Faith community” is a mild skid into faux-sociologese, but more-or-less tolerable. But, please, purveyors of AmChurchSpeak: let us not start talking about parishioners as “congregation bases,” or the People of God in the Mystical Body of Christ as a “believer base” — still less a “religious consumer base”!


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About George Weigel 430 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).

8 Comments

  1. Grumbling about “faith community” is a weak complaint. Not everybody belongs to, worships with, or identifies with a parish. We have monasteries, campus ministries, communities of religious outside of a cloister, small groups, associations recognized and ignored.

    “Fan base” is marketing lingo. Likewise political bases. Bad terminology. Leave “faith community” alone, I’d say.

  2. People try to make themselves sound smart by complexificating their verbiage.

    I call it six o’clock newspeak.

    Whenever people have microphones stuck in their faces, you hear the most vacuous technobabble imaginable.

    And I agree with Mr. Weigel that “faith community” rings hollow.

  3. It’s worth pointing out that recently AJ signed a 9 year contract with the Yankees averaging $40,000,000 per year. Given that there are 8760 hours (365*24) hours in a year, this means that he will be making $4566.21 per hour, 24/7 – 365.

    Complexificate that. (Sorry Briney – I couldn’t help myself)

  4. I think “fan base” fits the people in these towns who embrace mercenary athletes whose sole priority is $$$ (I chose $75 million over $73 million because I have a responsibility to my family), and who often disdain the town and fans they represent. The “fan bases” in these towns seem to be fine with athletes coming/going with mind boggling rapidity. There was a time when even if your team was a collection of “bums” (on the field), at least they were YOUR bums, many of whom lived and had off-season jobs in their team’s town. Every fan would like a winner but the intangibles have melted away. Thus, “fan base” is as good as any other designation to me.

  5. Alas language evolves always has always will.what was beautiful for the Victorians is now archaic,pedantic. We don’t have to accept it, but we can’t change it. 😂 (another example)

  6. The terms are ambiguous for a reason. There are FANS — people who are in the stands rain or shine, winning record or losing record, and there are fans — people who don the latest logowear to join the enthusiasm when their team makes the playoffs. The same is true of “faith community.” Being at a large cathedral, I see the same parishioners day after day, week after week. I also see others twice a year, Easter and Christmas. And I see people on a regular basis who probably have not been formally brought into the Catholic Church but come often because they find our liturgies and spirituality and teaching to their liking.

  7. “We must pray that this plague does not bleed over into the life of the Church.”
    Occasionally Weigel shocks me. If he wants to give unqualified praise to VII, so be it. But the entire post VII era has been marked by factions (fan bases) intent on replacing an understanding of God-given innate truths of faith with political presuppositions and willfulness about the nature of truth, with the majority of Catholics siding with those who insist everything is political.

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