The Spread of a Slur

Man Carrying Faggots

A Man Carrying Faggots, by George Chinnery (1799)

Jane Eyre complains of being “fagged” in Charlotte Bronte‘s masterpiece; a small road in northern England is named “Faggy Lane;” and who can forget Alfred Gurney’s heartwarming 1884 poetry collection, A Christmas Faggot?

The preceding paragraph makes me cringe, no matter how innocuous the language. “Faggot,” formerly a polymorphous word for a bundle of sticks* or disagreeable woman or English meat dish, is slang for “gay man” in most North American dialects. This is further shortened to “fag,” intruding upon a UK/Commonwealth term for “cigarette.”

Given the multiple meanings, it is sometimes tricky to explain the offensiveness of these terms to non-Americans. “Faggot” is more than an insult; it’s a rallying cry for violence. Crude punchlines may suggest otherwise (for instance, the divisive “paging Dr. Faggot” joke in The Hangover). But I have certainly been threatened violently with “faggot,” as have countless men who are either gay or perceived as such. It remains profoundly hateful.

But how American is the word? On Wikipedia, one finds this questionable take on the matter:

Originally confined to the United States, the use of the words “fag” and “faggot” as epithets for gay men has spread elsewhere in the English-speaking world, but the extent to which they are used in this sense has varied outside the context of imported US popular culture.

Is this true? I find the spread difficult to track, given fag and faggot‘s competing meanings. The latter is used pejoratively by Canadians (as heard in The Kids in the Hall). Yet in the series Slings and Arrows, the protagonist refers to cigarettes as “fags,” suggesting the British term’s circulation up North. (Or is this Anglophilic affectation? The show is about Shakespearean actors, after all.)

The slur abounds overseas these days. A character refers to another as a “faggot” in the 2003 Irish film Intermission. Australian Swimmer Stephanie Rice was condemned for Tweeting “suck on that faggots” after watching a rugby match. There was controversy in South Africa over rapper DJ Hi-Tek’s use of “faggot” in song lyrics; the artist is gay himself, prompting questions about the term’s legitimacy among gay men.

Even personal anecdote suggests the word’s creep. My brother once had a loutish British co-worker who observed, “you’re one of those communist, vegetarian faggots, aren’t you?” (This was a wildly misguided attempt at an icebreaker).

Yet such slurs clearly co-exist with previous definitions outside America. Search for “faggot” on the Telegraph website and you find articles about homophobia side-by-side with innocent Christmas recipes. In Australia, one finds several controversies about the word being directed toward gay men, yet in a harrowing incident, a female rape victim was called a “faggot” for telling her story at a comedy club, which suggests that the term’s misogynistic origins are not yet a thing of the past.

If homophobic “faggot” has indeed been accepted beyond Yankee shores, this seems to have happened recently. An unfortunate turn of events, as the word has never been more odious. If it is indeed “spreading,” why now?

*In some cases, this was extended to mean  a bundle or group of anything. 

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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17 Responses to The Spread of a Slur

  1. I propose one explanation for the spread of the offensive use of the word:

    When used homophobically, the word elicits much stronger emotion than it does when used in other ways, which means it sticks more in the mind. Also, because that one meaning is so hateful, it colors our perception of the innocent meanings (makes us cringe, as you say). So even people who first heard the word as a term for cigarettes or Christmas desserts will find themselves thinking about homophobia when the word comes up, and will therefore try to find other words fro cigarettes and Chrismas desserts. So any word will always shift to its most horrible possible meaning.
    The same tendency is responsible for the extinction of “niggardly.”

    • J. Foss says:

      Faggot is a word used by prepubescent kids on Xbox Live. I don’t take it too seriously.

      • Sam Huddy says:

        I believe you’re thinking of “Faget.”

      • Josh McNeill says:

        Sure, you don’t take it seriously in that context as it’s just an immature taunt that’s arguably more akin to “wuss” than “homosexual that I think should die.” A gay man walking down the street who’s approached by strangers using the word would take it dead seriously, though, and that’s not such a far fetched scenario.

  2. Mazzoir says:

    There is also the use of ‘fag/fagging’ in the British Public School system, where a younger boy will act as basically a servant for an older boy – the general perception is that this may include sexual acts. I think Stephen Fry in his autobiography talks about the “prettiest” new boys coming under scrutiny, and almost a bidding war, as to who would get who to fag for them. Also referenced in Tom Brown’s School Days.
    If (if) this derives from the bundle of sticks, as in the fetching and carrying the young boy would be expected to do, might this be the missing link between the meanings?

    • I have considered the possibility. “Fagging” actually managed to cross the Atlantic in the early 1900s or thereabouts (search for it in Google Books; you’ll find occasional American examples in descriptions of Ivy League Universities or boarding schools). But many mysteries would remain even if this were the case. How did this term spread from the rarified world of Northeastern academia to the general population? And how was it extended to “faggot?”

  3. Nick says:

    ‘Given the multiple meanings, it is sometimes tricky to explain the offensiveness of these terms to non-Americans.’
    I have to wonder if this is a more general phenomenon. As an Australian, I’m well acquainted with the American usages of various swear words but I often disagree with American friends about the level of offensiveness. In my idiolect at least, a word with multiple extant meanings can never rise to the level of “fuck”, for example. So to me “bitch” and “cock” will always rank pretty low.
    The question becomes, “If the other meanings die out, will the insults be more widely acknowledged as highly offensive?” Well, “fag” for cigarette is certainly old-fashioned in Australia (and hopefully the draconian tobacco laws will see smoking die out altogether in another generation or so). And I don’t even have a clear idea of what the dish “faggot” looks like. So long as there’s not too much demand for kindling, I think we might see a gradually increasing acknowledgement of the offensiveness of these terms.

  4. Jeffrey says:

    Reporting from Canada here – use of these words basically the same (and as violently offensive) as in the States. Any use of “fag” to mean cigarette, or “fagged” for tired would be a joke, or an affectation, as you suggest. Entirely self-conscious, and certainly not common usage. Just thought I’d weigh in from north of the border to clear up any question. :)

  5. Tom says:

    As a gay 48-year-old man living in the Philly suburbs who works at an office job, I don’t tend to hear that word. (I can’t remember the last time I heard it anyway. If people say it out of my earshot, or at home, I have no idea.)

    I think one of the ironies at play is that young people support same-sex marriage in higher percentages than older people, but their casual usage of “faggot” seems absolutely rampant. Here’s a website http://www.nohomophobes.com/#!/last-week/ that tracks real-time tweets that contain the words “faggot”, “so gay”, “no homo”, and “dyke”. “Faggot” wins by a landslide, but I had no idea how prevalent “no homo” has become (as a disclaimer, usually by guys, that what they’re saying or doing may make it SEEM they’re gay, but they’re not; occasionally, it’s used ironically).

    So anyway, this site tracks all usages of those words, and it’s clear that many of these tweets are from English-speakers in other countries (just saw one that included the phrase “That fry up did not sort me out”), although they speed by so quickly it’s difficult to track. Right now, there’s a proliferation of tweets that quote a couple lines from the Christmas-themed song “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl (“You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap, lousy faggot”), so I assume that quite a few of these particular tweets are from the UK/Ireland area.

    Certainly, the comments section of many websites is fertile ground for finding slurs of all types. Perhaps news/entertainment/sports websites from other English-speaking countries could help confirm the prevalence of the usage of “faggot” outside the US?

    • Tom says:

      If you follow that link to the Twitter feed, it may take a few seconds to start up, but once it gets going, it can be mind-blowingly fast, particularly as you get into the afternoon and evening hours.

  6. Ed says:

    This is certainly a well-written post. It made me think.

    The first time that I heard the word was when Eminem became famous around 2001. I think that he can be partially blamed for spreading the word.

    • Josh McNeill says:

      To me, that was an interesting controversy. I’m about 10 years younger than Eminem and I recall the word being ubiquitous in high school but as a general jocular insult as opposed to an attestation of homophobia. This sense of the word was prevalent enough, for me at least, that Eminem’s issue created a cognitive dissonance between wanting to still use the word in the jocular sense but not wanting to perpetuate the homophobic implications. Instances like that, in my mind, helped bring the word back into the same category as the N word where otherwise it might have continued down the path toward being innocuous.

  7. Richard Gadsden says:

    A guess as to why – like most offensive words, it’s generally avoided in mainstream media. Until the rise of the internet, mainstream media was the main connection between the dialects of English – travel between the three main dialectical regions (ie UK/Ireland, USA/Canada and NZ/Australia) is still expensive and only a small minority travel frequently.

    But, with the internet, international interactions increased. On the internet, we use informal modes much more than TV, film, radio or books do. I bet a facebook corpus would have a much higher rate for “fuck” than any of the standard corpuses.

    “Wank” and “wanker” seem to have crossed the Atlantic from Britain to America; it doesn’t much surprise that “fag” and “faggot” have crossed in the opposite direction.

    Of course, offensive words from another dialect usually come out much less offensive. With fag = cigarette still in common usage here in England, faggot = homosexual man is usually more slangy than offensive (though, any slang name for a disparaged group is always going to be used for insults).

  8. John Joss says:

    Minor clarification, I suggest, from the Brit end. “Fagged,” as in exhausted, was more usually used as “fagged out,” same meaning.

  9. Warsaw Will says:

    A British perspective –
    I’m really fagged (out) – I’m tired.
    I can’t be fagged – I can’t be bothered
    It’s such a fag – something that is boring and tiring to do
    fag, fagging – the former ‘public’ (ie very private) school custom of using junior boys as unpaid servants, as already mentioned
    fag – standard slang for cigarette – ‘Gie us a fag’ (Glasgow), ‘Got a fag, mate’ (London), and fag-end, also used figuratively – ‘The fag-end of the day”.

    More interesting, I’m pretty sure that in the 1960’s radio show ‘Round the Horn’, faggot was used as a mild insult, with possible homosexual overtones (but not anti-) the show was known for its use of polari, a form of speech apparently connected with gays, and which nobody else really understood – eg: ‘Bona to vada your lovely eek’ – Good to see your lovely face.

    And then there’s that line you mentioned in ‘Fairy Tale of New York’, the best Christmas record ever. I can see no hint of gay overtones there.

    My favourite British dictionary, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s, doesn’t even mention the derogatory meaning (except under fag) , only the bunch of sticks, or ‘a ball of finely chopped meat mixed with bread, baked or fried and eaten hot’

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