The Grammarphobia Blog

A burning question

Q: I am 58 years old and I learned back in sixth grade that “faggot,” the derogatory term for a gay man, is derived from a term for bundles of wood used to burn witches and anyone else thought to be evil. The last time I looked, Wikipedia pooh-poohed this idea. What’s the scoop?

A: When the word “faggot” first showed up in English around 1300, it meant simply a bundle of sticks, twigs, or small branches bound together for fuel, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

There was no suggestion that the resultant fire would be used to burn witches, heretics, or anyone else thought to be evil. The word is still used today in the sense of kindling, especially in Britain.

It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that the term was used in reference to the burning alive of heretics. The first citation in the OED, dating from around 1555, is by Hugh Latimer, an Anglican bishop.

In a collection of sermons and other writings, Latimer refers to “a few flying apostates, running out of Germany for fear of the fagot.” (Note that the term here refers to the kindling, not the heretics.)

In the late 16th century, “faggot” also came to be “a term of abuse or contempt applied to a woman,” according to the OED. The first citation for this usage is in a 1591 discourse on the immorality of Athens.

Thomas Lodge, the author of the discourse, uses the term “faggot” in reference to “an Athenian she handfull.” Why would a woman (even a “she handfull”) be called a “faggot”?

The word sleuth Dave Wilton, on his website Wordorigins.org, speculates that the usage “probably comes from the idea of a faggot being a burden or baggage (not unlike the modern ball and chain).”

Not until the early 20th century did the word “faggot” come to mean a male homosexual. The OED describes this usage as “slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.).”

The first published reference is from an entry in a 1914 slang dictionary: “Drag, Example: ‘All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.’ “

It’s no surprise, of course, that a term for a woman would one day be applied to a gay man. Another feminine term, “queen,” has been used since the 1890s to refer to a male homosexual.

“Fag,” in this sense, is simply an abbreviation of “faggot.” It’s been around since the 1920s.

In an early citation (from Death in the Afternoon, 1932), Hemingway sneers at “those interested parties who are continually proving that Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, etc. were fags.”

The noun “fag” has many other meanings today, especially in Britain. For example, it may refer to a cigarette or to a younger student who performs chores for an older one at an English public school.

Why is a public-school drudge called a “fag”? This meaning comes from the use of the verb “fag” in the sense of to work to exhaustion.

As for the cigarette sense, the OED suggests that it may be derived from the use of “fag” to mean something that hangs loose, as in the fag end of a piece of cloth. But where does this hanging-loose business come from?

It seems that an obsolete meaning of the verb “fag” was to droop, decline, or flag. The OED says this sense is of “obscure etymology,” but “the common view” is that it resulted from a corruption of the verb “flag.”

Enough already. I’m fagged, and it’s time for me to hang loose.

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