A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How did "faggot" get to mean "male homosexual"?

July 29, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

I recently reread the Lord of the Rings trilogy and I've always been curious about Tolkien's casual use of the term faggot. I guess that in Britain the term does not carry a negative connotation and is used as slang for cigarettes and whatnot, but it still gets me thinking. How can a word go from meaning "a bundle of sticks" to "homosexual male"? I've looked elsewhere on the Internet, but I haven't been able to find any unbiased resources or even biased ones that state their sources. They all say that it goes back to heretics being forced to carry the faggots for their own execution at the stake. Forgive me for being skeptical, but this sounds a heckuva lot like the story about the origin of the term "rule of thumb," albeit backward.

Well, Josh, you're right to think that the British historically haven't found "faggot" offensive--with the exception of a vile-tasting meatball currently marketed in the UK as Mr. Brain's Faggots. One of the advertising lines says, "It's no wonder 100 million faggots are eaten in the UK every year!"  As Dave Barry says, "I'm NOT making this up."

It took Americans to apply the term to male homosexuals. First some history.

The term faggot or fagot, meaning bundle of sticks, shows up around 1300 in English. It almost certainly came from Old French, possibly going back to Greek phakelos. Since those bundles of sticks were mainly used for fires, it's not surprising that the term came to mean burning sticks. Then there was that nasty business in medieval times where heretics were burned at the stake. Some later cites indicate heretics who repented and were spared a fiery death had to wear a picture of a faggot on their sleeve to show what might have been their fate. But no print evidence exists that homosexuals were referred to as faggots before the twentieth century, with the origin definitely in the U.S., not Britain.

The British continued to use the words fag and faggot as nouns, verbs and adjectives right through the early 20th century, never applying it to homosexuals at any time. To fag or to be a fag was a common term in British schools from the late 1700s and referred to a lower classman who performed chores for upperclassmen. While this term was also in vogue at Harvard in the first half of the 19th century, it died out by the mid-1800s in the U.S., leaving it in use only in England. Nineteenth century Britons also heard "faggot" used in reference to an ill-tempered woman, i.e., a ball-buster, a battleaxe, a shrew. That meaning of the term continued into the early 20th century, and the usage was gradually applied to children as well as women. The relationship, if any, between faggot-as-bundle-of-sticks and faggot-as-shrewish-woman is unknown.

The first known published use of the word faggot or fag to refer to a male homosexual appeared in 1914 in the U.S. It referred to a homosexual ball where the men were dressed in drag and called them "fagots (sissies)." Ernest Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises (1926), included the line, "You're a hell of a good guy, and I'm fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn't tell you that in New York. It'd mean I was a faggot." A 1921 cite says, "Androgynes [are] known as 'fairies,' 'fags,' or 'brownies.'"

George Chauncey, in his excellent 1994 work Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, says that the terms fairy, faggot, and queen were used by homosexuals to refer to men who were ostentatiously effeminate. Homosexuals who were not as showy referred to themselves as "queer" in the first decades of the 20th century. But the general public mainly called homosexuals "fairies." If you were in London in the 1920s through the 1940s and used the term "fag," the man in the street might have offered you a cigarette, and quite possibly that would have been the case with many Americans at the time.

All of this does little to answer your original question: How did a bundle of sticks come to mean a homosexual male?  Most likely it didn't. Here we'll have to go to theory. Since I'm writing this, mine will have to do.

We notice with some words a progression of usage that morphs along the lines of "woman/girl" > "woman/girl/child" > "effeminate male" > "homosexual male." The word fairy is a good example. "Faggot" in the sense of an ill-tempered woman is another. I independently came to that conclusion while answering a general question on the SDMB. But, in a post to the American Dialect Society mailing list, Dr. Laurence Horn, professor of linguistics at Yale University, posted the progression that I just used (he did it much more succinctly than I could).  Still unexplained is how a Britishism jumped the ocean in a short period of time to acquire a new meaning in the U.S. Perhaps it was an independent formation. Words happen.

As a last thought, a current notion holds that the Yiddish word faygeleh, "little bird," might have been the source, but lacks evidence other than the claim that the word was commonly used in Yiddish prior to WWII to indicate a homosexual. With the digitizing of publications allowing searching never before possible, perhaps some further scholarship will be forthcoming to help solve the mystery.

Resources: Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by J. E. Lighter, New York, 1994-1997.

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