Fag, short for faggot, or a bundle of stickes. In some parts of the world it means a cigarette. In some parts it is slang for a homosexual.

Imagine my suprise when I came to this country and asked some new friends if they wanted to go outside and "catch a fag."

A slang term for cigarettes in British culture. One is said to smoke a fag.

This term and its sister term, faggot, have been re-appropriated by mainstream gay culture in the same way nigger was re-appropriated by black culture. Using it as a term of offence is considered laughable rather than derogatory.

In British public schools, a fag is a young student who runs errands and does chores for an older boy. There are no connotations of homosexuality. You can find this term in a number of Victorian novels, but I have no idea if this term is still in use today.

I was reading E.W Hornung’s Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman this morning, and right there on page one Bunny Danvers blurts out to Raffles "But I fagged for you at school, and you said you remembered me." I was stunned, not because of what I thought the implications were, but because I never thought a Victorian era novel would be so explicit about the love that dare not speak its name. Turns out, after a small bit of research, I was wrong, and Bunny and Raffles will only be together in erotic fan fiction.
I'm writing to contribute some information on the question of, does the original meaning of "fag" in the English Public Schools carry any connotation of homosexuality? Several Americans I spoke with, one of whom lived in England for most of the 1950's, swear it does. However, my research suggests such connotation is purely American.

So, when does a more (or less) common usage of a term become part of the lexicon? I thought about this and decided, as fond as I am of Webster 1913, as often as I've secretly wished for the ability to vote for its excellent w/u's, we need independent confirmation of this controversial point. As far as the English language is concerned, there could be no better authority than the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). I have a subscription to the OED online, which is based on the Second Edition, 1989, Unabridged, and includes the Additions Series of 1993 and 1997. The copyright notice prevents me from quoting the relevant entries verbatim, so allow me to paraphrase:

The OED lists five entries for "fag" as a noun, and another two as a verb. The very first entry clearly documents the meaning that Gamaliel mentions, and makes no mention anywhere of homosexuality. Homosexuality is not even mentioned until the fifth meaning of the word, and the OED notes that this entire meaning is U.S. slang for a young male homosexual, with an additional connotation of one who profits from the relationship in some way. The OED is presumably aware of the more recent movement in U.S. male homosexual culture to re-appropriate the word "fag", minus its negative connotations, but apparently feels that as of 1997 this meaning hadn't caught on sufficiently in everyday usage or literature to be considered "official". Perhaps that will change in the Third Edition.

Perhaps most telling is the etymology given for the first and fifth meanings of "fag". The first meaning, referring to the Public School usage, dates back to 1795 and derives from the verb "to fag" whose origins are obscure but thought to be based on the verb "to flag" (as in to become weary). The fifth meaning of "fag" is simply an abbreviation of "faggot", another term of obscure origins but probably derived from French or Italian.

Clearly, these two meanings of "fag" are of completely different origin; the fifth meaning apparently did not evolve from the first. Even today I think its fair to say if an English person uses the word "fag" in the first sense, it would not be correct to infer they were implying a homosexual relationship. Of course, given the current pace of cross-cultural pollination, I wouldn't be surprised if English use of the American slang term is displacing the more traditional English word, "queer".


Sources

"fag, n.1", Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 6 Oct. 2002. <http://oed.com/cgi/entry/00081643>

"fag, n.5", Ibid., <http://oed.com/cgi/entry/00081647>

"fag, v.1", Ibid., <http://oed.com/cgi/entry/00081648>

"faggot, faggot, n.1", Ibid., <http://oed.com/cgi/entry/00081661>

Fag (?) n.

A knot or coarse part in cloth.

[Obs.]

 

© Webster 1913.


Fag, v. i. [imp. & p. p. Fagged (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Fagging (?).] [Cf. LG. fakk wearied, weary, vaak slumber, drowsiness, OFries. fai, equiv. to fach devoted to death, OS. fgi, OHG. feigi, G. feig, feige, cowardly, Icel. feigr fated to die, AS. fge, Scot. faik, to fail, stop, lower the price; or perh. the same word as E. flag to droop.]

1.

To become weary; to tire.

Creighton withheld his force till the Italian began to fag. G. Mackenzie.

2.

To labor to wearness; to work hard; to drudge.

Read, fag, and subdue this chapter. Coleridge.

3.

To act as a fag, or perform menial services or drudgery, for another, as in some English schools.

To fag out, to become untwisted or frayed, as the end of a rope, or the edge of canvas.

 

© Webster 1913.


Fag, v. t.

1.

To tire by labor; to exhaust; as, he was almost fagged out.

2.

Anything that fatigues.

[R.]

It is such a fag, I came back tired to death. Miss Austen.

Brain fag. Med. See Cerebropathy.

 

© Webster 1913.

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