Faggot, often shortened to fag, is a pejorative term used chiefly in North America primarily to refer to a gay man. Alongside its use to refer to homosexual men in particular, it may also be used as a pejorative term for a "repellent male" or a homosexual of either gender. Its use has spread from the United States to varying extents elsewhere in the English-speaking world through mass culture, including film, music, and the Internet.
The American slang term is first recorded in 1914, the shortened form fag shortly after, in 1921. Its immediate origin is unclear, but it is based on the word for "bundle of sticks", ultimately derived, via Old French, Italian and Vulgar Latin, from Latin fascis.
The word faggot has been used in English since the late 16th century as an abusive term for women, particularly old women, and reference to homosexuality may derive from this, as female terms are often used with reference to homosexual or effeminate men (cf. nancy, sissy, queen). The application of the term to old women is possibly a shortening of the term "faggot-gatherer", applied in the 19th century to people, especially older widows, who made a meagre living by gathering and selling firewood. It may also derive from the sense of "something awkward to be carried" (compare the use of the word baggage as a pejorative term for old people in general).
An alternative possibility is that the word is connected with the practice of fagging in British private schools, in which younger boys performed (potentially sexual) duties for older boys, although the word faggot was never used in this context, only fag. There is a reference to the word faggot being used in 17th century Britain to refer to a "man hired into military service simply to fill out the ranks at muster", but there is no known connection with the word's modern pejorative usage.
The Yiddish word faygele, lit. "little bird", has been claimed by some to be related to the American usage. The similarity between the two words makes it possible that it might at least have had a reinforcing effect.
There used to be an urban legend, called an "oft-reprinted assertion" by Douglas Harper, that the modern slang meaning developed from the standard meaning of faggot as "bundle of sticks for burning" with regard to burning at the stake. This is unsubstantiated; the emergence of the slang term in 20th-century American English is unrelated to historical death penalties for homosexuality.
Use in the United Kingdom
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. The words queer, homo, and poof are all still in common use in the UK, and some other countries, as pejorative terms for gay men. The words fag and faggot, moreover, still have other meanings in the British Isles and other Commonwealth societies. In particular, faggot is still used to refer to a kind of meatball, and fag is common as a slang word for "cigarette".
The terms fag/fagging, have been widely used for a practice of younger pupils acting as personal servants to the most senior boys for well over a hundred years in England, in the public school (United Kingdom) system of education.
Use of fag and faggot as the term for an effeminate man has become understood as an Americanism in British English, primarily due to entertainment media use in films and television series imported from the United States. When Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews was overheard supposedly using the word in a bad-tempered informal exchange with a straight colleague in the House of Commons lobby in November 2005, it was considered to be homophobic abuse.
Early printed use
The word faggot with regard to homosexuality was used as early as in the 1914 Jackson and Hellyer A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang, with Some Examples of Common Usages which listed the following example under the word, drag:
- "All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight."
The word was also used by a character in Claude McKay’s 1928 novel Home to Harlem, indicating that it was used during the Harlem Renaissance. Specifically, one character says that he cannot understand:
- "a bulldyking woman and a faggoty man"
Pascoe's research on masculinity and high school
Through ethnographic research in a high school setting, CJ Pascoe examines how high school boys use the term fag. Pascoe's work suggests that boys in high school use the fag epithet as a way to assert their own masculinity, by claiming that another boy is less masculine; this, in their eyes, makes him a fag, and its usage suggests that it is less about sexual orientation and more about gender. One-third of the boys in Pascoe's study claimed that they would not call a homosexual peer a fag; fag is used in this setting as a form of gender policing, in which boys ridicule others who fail at masculinity, heterosexual prowess, or strength. Because boys do not want to be labeled a fag, they hurl the insult at another person. The fag identity does not constitute a static identity attached to the boy receiving the insult. Rather, fag is a fluid identity that boys strive to avoid, often by naming another as the fag. As Pascoe asserts, "[the fag identity] is fluid enough that boys police their behaviors out of fear of having the fag identity permanently adhere and definitive enough so that boys recognize a fag behavior and strive to avoid it." Pascoe's study reports that gender policing is most common among white boys, while black boys are more concerned with "acting" appropriately black. The black youth in Pascoe's study often ridiculed one another for "acting white," and did not express gender policing to the same degree as white boys.
Use in popular culture
There is a long history of using both fag and faggot in popular culture, usually to denigrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo's book of the same name notes the use of fag and faggot throughout Hollywood film history. The Think Before You Speak (campaign) has sought to stop fag and gay being used as generic insults.
Books and magazines
Larry Kramer's 1978 novel, Faggots, discusses the gay community including the use of the word within and towards the community. In its November 2002 issue, the New Oxford Review, a Catholic magazine, caused controversy by its use and defense of the word in an editorial. During the correspondence between the editors and a gay reader, the editors clarified that they would only use the word to describe a "practicing homosexual". They defended the use of the word, saying that it was important to preserve the social stigma of gays and lesbians.
Arlo Guthrie uses the epithet in his 1967 signature song "Alice's Restaurant," noting it as a potential way to avoid military induction at the time. The Dire Straits 1985 song "Money for Nothing" makes notable use of the epithet faggot, although the lines containing it are often excised for radio play, and in live performances by singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler. The song was banned from airplay by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council in 2011 but the ban was reversed later the same year. In 1989, Sebastian Bach, lead singer of the band Skid Row, created a controversy when he wore a t-shirt with the parody slogan "Aids: Kills Fags Dead". The 2001 song "American Triangle" by Elton John and Bernie Taupin uses the phrase God hates fags where we come from.. The song is about Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming man who was killed because he was gay. The 2007 song The Bible Says, which includes the line "God Hates Fags" (sometimes used as an alternate title) caused considerable controversy when it was published on various websites. Apparently an anti-gay song written and performed by an ex-gay pastor "Donnie Davies", it was accompanied by the realistic Love God's Way website about his "ministry". Debate ensued about whether Donnie Davies and the outrageous song, which included a few double entendres, were for real, and whether the lyrics could ever be considered acceptable even in satire. Donnie Davies was revealed in 2007 to be a character played by actor and entertainer. Some gay rights advocates acknowledge that as a spoof it is humorous, but claim the message behind it is still as malicious as someone who seriously possessed the opinion. In December 2007, BBC Radio 1 caused controversy by editing the word faggot from their broadcasts of the Kirsty MacColl & The Pogues song "Fairytale of New York," deeming it potentially homophobic; however, the edit did not extend to other BBC stations, such as BBC Radio 2. Following widespread criticism and pressure from listeners, the decision was reversed and the original unedited version of the song was reinstated, with clarification from Andy Parfitt, the station controller, that in the context of the song the lyrics had no "negative intent." Patty Griffin uses the word faggot in her song Tony. The song is about a classmate of hers from high school who committed suicide.
Television and newsmedia
In 1995, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey referred to openly gay congressman Barney Frank as "Barney Fag" in a press interview. Armey apologized and said it was "a slip of the tongue". Frank did not accept Armey's explanation, saying "I turned to my own expert, my mother, who reports that in 59 years of marriage, no one ever introduced her as Elsie Fag."
In July 2006 conservative pundit Ann Coulter, while being interviewed by MSNBC's Chris Matthews, said that the former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was a "total fag", and suggested that former U.S. President Bill Clinton may be a "latent homosexual". Coulter caused a major controversy in the LGBT community; GLAAD and other gay rights organizations demanded to know the reason why such an offensive usage of the word was permitted by the network. In March 2007, Coulter again created controversy when she made an off-color joke: "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot', so I'm kind of at an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards ..." Her comments triggered a campaign by a gay rights group and media watchdog to persuade mainstream media outlets to ban her shows and appearances.
In October 2006, Grey's Anatomy star Isaiah Washington called his co-star T. R. Knight a "faggot" on the set during an argument with Patrick Dempsey. According to Knight, the incident led to him publicly coming out of the closet. Washington made another outburst using the epithet, this time backstage at the Golden Globe Awards. In January 2007, Washington issued a public apology for using the word faggot and went into rehab to help him with what the show's creator Shonda Rhimes referred to as "his behavioral issues."
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- Kramer, Larry. Faggots, Grove Press, 2000.
- Ford, Michael Thomas. That's Mr. Faggot to You: Further Trials from My Queer Life, Alyson Books, 1999.
|Look up faggot in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
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