A History of Fags and Faggots

A History of Fags and Faggots

Alright, mate. Can I pinch a fag?

Image for postPrince Harry pinches nipples before the Invictus Games. Like ya do.

No, I don?t actually have an odd tickling or skin torture fetish, and neither does Prince Harry ? at least as far as I know. ?Pinching a fag? in the UK simply means what we Americans would call ?bumming a smoke.?

Is it offensive to call a cigarette a fag, though? Is it an unintentional slur?

Let?s look at the word origins.

Did you know that calling a cigarette a fag predates calling a gay person a fag or a faggot?

The latter meaning probably had part of its roots in English public boarding school traditions with respect to younger boys (fags) performing menial domestic chores for older boys (fagging).

The schoolboy usage of fag, from faggot, derives from the original, now lost sense of a bundle of sticks, which became associated with women’s chores.[1] Younger boys who performed cleaning and other duties for older boys used faggots as brooms while performing their duties.

Eventually, the word for the tool was applied to the person using the tool, by way of a fairly common linguistic phenomenon. Eventually, faggot was shortened to fag, another phenomenon with which linguists are familiar.

Sexual favors being a rumored (or not so rumored) part of a fag’s duties, the word eventually came to take on a more explicitly homoerotic connotation.

That usage did not become common, however, until the early twentieth century.

Steven Fry was certainly conversant with the term in both its original usage, and in its newer, erotic alternative, as well illustrated in his autobiography, Moab is my Washpot, and in The Liar, his first novel. In both books, Fry describes not only the custom of fagging , but also his own personal experiences falling in love with a boy at school.

It’s sometimes argued that it was faggot?s connection to women’s work rather than public school traditions that caused the word to be adopted to refer to gay men, particularly in American usage, but if so, then the two uses evolved independently and during roughly the same time periods.

Cigarettes began to be called fags earlier, as early as the mid-nineteenth century in England. The stick meaning still exists at the heart of the matter, but the usage evolved very differently.

The two uses of ?fag? are essentially homonyms – different words with the same sounds.

Of course, calling a cigarette a fag is not a homophobic slur. It doesn’t refer to sexual orientation at all, just to the end of a burning stick.

It sounds a bit odd to my American ears. We don’t use it. But it doesn’t sound offensive to me.

Now, pinching a beefy young competitive swimmer on the nipples ? I?ll leave that to my readers to decide.

If bonny Prince Harry isn?t enjoying his horseplay, I?ll happily volunteer to take over his pinching duties at the next Invictus Games.


[1]faggot – Wiktionary


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