Spoiler Alert
February 16, 2008 10:24 AM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the term "Spoiler Alert".

I don't ever remember reading a movie or book review from the 1970's or 1980's that began with the term "spoiler alert" or "spoiler ahead". It's possible that they were there all along, and that I just didn't notice them, but I seem to have first encountered the term in the late 1990's.

I also wonder if this is a term that originated on the Internet rather than in conventional print, as it seems to me to have coincided with the growth of the Internet.

When did this term become almost universally used?
posted by Tube to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
From the OED:

spoiler, n.

* colloq. (orig. U.S.). A description of a significant plot point or other aspect of a movie, book, etc., which if previously known may spoil a person's first experience of the work. Esp. in written contexts, warning the reader of an impending revelation of this type.

1981 SF-Lovers Digest V3 #120 in fa.sf-lovers (Usenet newsgroup) 13 May, Spoiler..Spoiler..Spoiler... The island of the High-tech civilization is Krakatoa.
1993 E. RAYMOND New Hacker's Dict. (ed. 2) 392 Spoiler, a remark which reveals important plot elements from books or movies.
1998 Ottawa Citizen (Nexis) 24 June C1, 117 TV episodes have aired so far... So here's a spoiler alert. If you don't want to know.., read no further.
2001 Premiere Feb. 45/1 It [sc. this article] contains several plot ‘spoilers’ and should not be read until after you have seen the movie.
posted by Partial Law at 10:45 AM on February 16, 2008

It was definitely widely in use on usenet right from the start. The first mention I found in Google's usenet archives was from May 23rd, 1981, and it's a digest of an email list that has the message using the term from May 12th.

I used to be involved in APAs in the late 80s, and my recollection is that the term was in use there too. I suspect that it would have originated in sf, comics and/or media fan publications at some point, but don't ask me when. It could have been anytime since the 30s. The cite above reinforces my belief. YMMV.
posted by ursus_comiter at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2008

Totally guessing here - but I think in part the proliferation can be blamed on the internet, since information about a plot/event/sequence/whatever can be plastered all over the internet as soon as (or even before) said plot has been revealed. As soon as the season finale of Grey's Anatomy aired, you can bet that there were fans discussing it all over, but this is a phenomenon that wouldn't really have been possible before the internet. The discussion would've been limited to people you can easily access via phone or direct encounter, and the chances of you hearing the end without wanting to hear the end would've been fairly small.

With the internet though, it's so easy to come across unsolicited information. Metafilter is an example of that. Someone asks about an event that happened in a recent movie and frames the question theoretically. You click on the 'more inside' and bam! Movie spoiled. I imagine people were getting ticked off at the supposed insensitivity of others to those who aren't fully updated on pop culture and demanded a warning.
posted by Phire at 11:03 AM on February 16, 2008

The first use of "spoiler alert" in a book is from 1994. The passage where it appears describes its use as part of the prescribed etiquette in an e-mail discussion group called DOROTHYL which discussed mystery books.

This led me to search Google Groups (Usenet newsgroups) by date, where I found "spoiler alert" in use well before 1994. The earliest is this message from 1982. That was the only one that year. There were 6 more "spoiler alerts" in 1983, 10 in 1984, 9 in 1985, 5 in 1986, 3 in 1987, 92 in 1988, 113 in 1989, and then it mushrooms from there. Newsgroup usage overall was pretty limited before 1988 and then started growing exponentially, so that's not too surprising. Among the messages in the single-digit years before 1988 there are multiple uses by a few users, mostly on the movies group where the first use occurred. [Possible errors in these number, groups search seems to return some random results]

"Spoiler" by itself, in the OED sense cited by Partial Law, on Usenet goes back to 1981 (the beginning of Usenet), as found above by ursus_comiter. But those messages use it in a way that indicates it was already a familiar term, so it certainly started before May 1981 in messages that were not archived. Usenet was started in 1980, but the existing archive starts during 1981.

In any event, all this indicates an Internet origin that goes along with the ease with which messages suddenly could be spread to a large group. However, it's possible that "spoiler" without "alert" predates any of the above and was used in printed movie reviews and the like. But, again via Google Books, I can't find that sense in anything printed before 1982.
posted by beagle at 11:04 AM on February 16, 2008

I've been a journalist since 1989, and we didn't use them until I moved into online journalism in the late 1990s. Suddenly we had the ability to announce the "American Idol" winner online before West Coast viewers had seen the show, and people would flame us to high heaven if we didn't use spoiler alerts and use generic headlines.
posted by GaelFC at 11:13 AM on February 16, 2008

The earliest quotation from the OED is from a message by Stan Isaacs in SF-LOVERS Digest V3 #120 in 1981, which appears to be the oldest issue of the digest on Usenet. The digest itself started in 1980, however, as an ARPANET mailing list, and the term is used in a way that suggests that the audience should be familiar with it. It might be easy enough to find an example in the older digests, but the web archive appears to be broken. I can't find it anywhere else on the web, so I've e-mailed Saul Jaffe to ask him if he can put it back up or otherwise help.
posted by grouse at 12:45 PM on February 16, 2008

WAAAAY back in the stone age, before "Internet" was a word, when USENET ruled the world, and was available to only maybe a hundred thousand or so people, I worked for Tektronix and we were among the privileged elite. This was when the majority of USENET traffic was carried by intermittent dialup modems.

There was a USENET news group about movies, and people would post articles in it that revealed things about movies. Finally one guy posted a message saying, "This is a problem, and I think I have a solution. I suggest that people include the word "Spoiler" in their subject lines if the body of their messages contains information that would spoil the viewing experience for others who have not seen the film."

And everyone else nodded, and agreed, and started doing it.

This was like 1978 or so, but I've tried searching for it a couple of times in the archives and I never turned up the specific post. It's possible that it happened before archiving really began.

It's one of those small things that ended up being really influential, like the time someone came up with the first "smiley" and posted about it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:55 PM on February 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

SCDB, it could not be 1978, if it was Usenet, which started in 1980. But it's possible it was used on Arpanet, previously. Arpanet launched in 1969. See my prior post above regarding archiving of Usenet starting in 1981.
posted by beagle at 3:06 PM on February 16, 2008

and just for fun, Steven C. Den Beste's earliest archived Usenet post, Feb. 5 1982 at 3:58 a.m.

And, another ancient SCDB post relevant to the topic at hand.
posted by beagle at 3:14 PM on February 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Aw man, you guys were on packet routed networks, interacting with relative strangers, before I was even conceived.

Internet origin++. I've seen it on the network for years, maybe ten? I've only seen it in print here very recently in sources that have low interaction with netizens--i.e. not Wired, but the WSJ.
posted by Netzapper at 9:00 AM on February 17, 2008

Thank you all for the input. Now you have me wondering what came before "spoiler alert"...

I wonder if the opposite of "spoiler alert" or "spoiler ahead" would be "without giving it away".
posted by Tube at 11:22 PM on February 18, 2008

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