A Brief History Of America’s Most Controversial Prefix

Alt-rock. Alt-lit. Alt-comedy. Alt-right.

What was once a prefix used to classify subgenres has become one of the more controversial modifiers of our day. “White supremacists have co-opted a combining form traditionally used for musical and literary genres,” Merriam-Webster wrote last week of “alt-right.” 

Short, of course, for “alternative” (an adjective meaning “different from the usual or conventional”), the prefix “alt” denotes something that rebels against tradition while belonging to it. For example, alt-country is a subdivision of country music; with a splash of punk it becomes a more precisely defined part of the country domain, bolded and underscored, but not removed from the whole. Similarly, alt-right as an ideological identifier ― popularized by Richard Bertrand Spencer, head of the white nationalist think tank National Policy Institute, in 2008 ― attempts to position its members within the right but as exceptional among its ranks.

Where does “alt” as we understand it come from? Merriam-Webster traced the popularity of “alt” back to the early days of the internet. “Alt” was the preferred prefix for a classification of Usenet newsgroups that “were created as an alternative forum to preexisting mainstream newsgroups,” Merriam-Webster recounts on its blog.

Popular in the 1980s and ‘90s, newsgroups were akin to online discussion groups and Usenet like a bulletin board system (BBS) that functioned as the precursor to internet forums. Essentially, computer users who frequented alt.* newsgroups were seeking an alternative to the mainstream discussions already happening on Usenet ― whether those discussions were about films, sports, politics, computers or sex. But “alternative” referred less to the content of the discussions, and more to the channels themselves.

As a FAQ (Copyright 1995 by David Barr and The Pennsylvania State University) notes:

Contrary to popular belief, “alt” is not named because it is for “alternative” topics. Back during the dawn of the modern Usenet, it was decided that newsgroups should be created by following a clearly defined set of “Guidelines”, involving formal discussions and a voting procedure. There was a significant number of people who felt that there should be a provision for a place where people could create groups without having to go through any discussion or votes. Thus alt was born. It is a hierarchy that is “alternative” to the “mainstream” (comp,misc,news, rec,soc,sci,talk) hierarchy. “ALT stands for ‘Anarchists, Lunatics, and Terrorists’.”

These “alt” groups valued highly the right to free speech while shunning hierarchy of any kind. (The apocryphal idea that “alt” stands for “anarchists, lunatics and terrorists” persists for a reason.) Some “alt” newsgroups were targeted by politicians for their associations with illegal entities, namely child pornographers. But others were simply places for little-known recommendations: alt.movies.silent, alt.movies.hitchcock, alt.movies.kubrick, etc.

All in all, “these newsgroups […] left alt- with a connotation of edginess,” Merriam-Webster argues. This edginess, the dictionary clarifies, “with its vague historical echoes of online culture,” was part of the appeal for the alt-right founders. “[It] seems to be what racist proponents of the alt-right had in mind when they rebranded old-school white supremacy under the alt- banner,” the blog post continues. And then there’s the useful sense of belonging.

“Generally speaking, identity labels are intended to open up space for belonging,” Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper told The Huffington Post. “What’s interesting about ‘alt-’ is that while it’s clearly a rebellion against an established identity — rock, right, press — it’s also defining itself with respect to that identity. That means that the core identity becomes an on-ramp for people into the ‘alt-’ identity.”

The Oxford Dictionaries shortlisted “alt-right” for its word of the year, defining the term as “an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the alt-right constitutes a “set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces.” (Alt-right views, NPR reports, are widely perceived as anti-Semitic and white supremacist.)

The alt-right, in these terms, might seem disconnected from the benign punk attitudes of alt-music and alt-literature, but perhaps it’s not that far removed from the alt.* hierarchy mentality. Some words of wisdom from Barr’s FAQ ring as eerily familiar today: 

There are no Guidelines or Rules for creating alt groups. There is no one “in charge” of the alt hierarchy. The key to creating a successful alt newsgroup depends only on convincing the thousands of news administrators across the globe to carry your newsgroup.

When asked whether or not another combining form would have communicated as specific of an idea as the alt-right sought to convey, Stamper was hesitant. “Alt-” itself, Stamper said, is becoming so familiar ― “particularly in music, where ‘alt-rock’ has now become part of the ‘establishment’” ― that compound prefixes like “alt-alt-” and “alt-alt-alt-” are popping up in Merriam-Webster’s archives, so there’s some value in its soft recognition.

“I haven’t run across any other compelling prefixes that convey both a sense of belonging and rebellion,” she replied. “I suppose ‘un-’ might qualify, though I think that ad campaigns for 7Up as the ‘un-cola’ might have commercialized the connotation too much. ‘Un-’ also defines a movement by what it’s not, which might be so broad in the case of something like ‘the un-left’ or ‘the un-right’ that just about anyone could belong to either.”

For those alt-classical enthusiasts upset that their prefix has ended up in the hands of white nationalists, perhaps the “un-right” communicates more clearly the absurdity of Richard Spencer’s ilk. Or, as several writers and editors have expressed, when in doubt, save “alt” for another moment of modification and just stick with a more precise descriptor: “white supremacist.” 

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