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.