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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | journalese | “fanatic,” “admirer,” “follower”; “would-be,” “aspiring,” “obsessive”)

To the best of my recollection, 1986 was kind of a crummy year. Nonetheless, it is the year “wannabe” stormed into the language. Before that, there were very few references in LexisNexis or Google Books. Merriam Webster Online gives the first citation as 1981, but the first example I found came from New York Magazine (July 26, 1976): A story about fledgling gangsters described one as a “Jimmy Cagney wannabe.” The first occurrence in LexisNexis dates from 1981, an article in Newsweek, which yielded a lovely example from surfer culture. All hell broke loose in 1986, due to Madonna’s teen fans and Spike Lee’s movie School Daze, in which African-American assimilationists (the Wannabees) were pitted against African-American traditionalists (the Jigaboos). After 1986, it caught on quickly and never looked back. In the eighties, the spelling “wannabee” was roughly as common as “wannabe”; by now the simpler spelling has prevailed. It was still possible then to use the word as a slangy verb phrase, and an adjective form was already available (but see below). The verb phrase has disappeared definitively.

There seem to be two subcultures in which this word bubbled up first. One was surfers, the other Native Americans. Both used it scornfully to name people who yearned to be part of the group but were incapable for some reason (it even sounded vaguely like the name of a tribe, so “Wannabe Indians” was a natural). There may be some cross-pollination between those two groups; I don’t know. Maybe neither was the original source, that is, maybe it first arose somewhere else or maybe it’s impossible to establish that it came into regular use first here or there. But what pre-1986 history there was seems to have centered in those two camps. My money is on the surfers.

And along came 1986, the watershed year. Not only did “wannabe” start to pop up everywhere, it acquired another meaning — there was always an instability built into the Madonna/Spike Lee dichotomy. “Madonna wannabe” simply denoted a person who went to a lot of trouble to pretend to be her. Dressing like Madonna, wearing the same makeup and accessories, and massing at her public appearances and screaming (later the term was applied to pop artists who modeled their act or career on Madonna’s, says Wikipedia). There was some question about whether they wanted to be Madonna or merely wanted to be like Madonna, but either way, they wanted to be someone different. Teenage girls screamed over the Beatles, too, but they didn’t want to be Paul or Ringo. They weren’t wannabes — more like worshipers. But in the eighties, worship took on the added dimension of copying — in effect, going out over and over again in the same Hallowe’en costume. The wannabe, like the stalker, expresses an obsession with an unattainable person, and it’s no accident the two concepts burst into the national consciousness within a few years of each other.

In Spike Lee’s terms, the word was about wanting to be someTHING other than you were. Wannabes aspired to be white, to join the ruling race on its own terms and give up at least part of their black identity. You still have to look the part, but it’s not a matter of focusing on a particular person. It’s about gaining acceptance within a group, as in the cases of surfers and Native Americans noted above. In this sense, it reminds me of the older African-American word, “striver,” although that word carried more respect than “wannabe.” This sense persists, used either on its own or appended to a job, status, or some other category of felicitous human existence. Both senses share the implication of falling short, failing to measure up. The word always had a tinge of contempt; a wannabe was in some measure pathetic, unable to do what it takes to become an initiate but unable to give up. No matter how ardent your devotion, you were never going to become Madonna; no matter how hard you ached to ride the waves, you just weren’t going to fit in. Now and then you will see the word used neutrally or even as a compliment, but a contemptuous tone usually is in there somewhere.

Grammar question: is “wannabe” ever really an adjective? It comes just as easily before a noun as after, at least nowadays, but is a wannabe Madonna the same as a Madonna wannabe? Maybe it’s always a noun, but sometimes it comes before the adjective. Maybe the substantive thing in the phrase is always “wannabe” (because the person doing the wanting should properly be regarded as the subject), never Madonna, or whoever (the object). My best guess is it’s a compound noun.


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