Q From Rehan Kularatne, London: With the word faggot turning up on BBC Radio One recently, I was wondering when it crossed the Atlantic. Is there a definitive etymology for its pejorative usage meaning ‘male homosexual’? An urban myth says it’s associated with the faggots that were used to burn people at the stake, which seems unlikely in the extreme given a 400-year hiatus in the association. Can you provide further information?
A Because it’s a puzzling slang term, several suggestions have been made for where it comes from. The one you quote is common and popular, since it connects the word directly with its most ancient sense — one hardly known these days — of a bundle of twigs, sticks, or small branches bound together for use as fuel. The word arrived in English via French and Italian from Greek phakelos, a bundle.
In the sixteenth century, faggot took on associations of being burnt at the stake as a heretic, especially in the phrase fire and faggot. There’s also a suggestion, though from after the period in which heretics were burnt, that it could also refer to a patch, embroidered with the image of a faggot, that heretics who had recanted were forced to wear on their sleeves. In recent times, people have equated or confused this patch with the pink triangle ones that homosexuals were forced to wear in the Nazi concentration camps. The problem with trying to link it to the sense of a bundle is the one you’ve put your finger on — there’s no evidence that faggot was used to mean “homosexual” until it appeared in the US in 1914 in A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang, edited by Louis E Jackson and C R Hellyer: “All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.”
The word has also been linked to the Yiddish faygele, a little bird, another US slang term with the same sense; with fag in the British public-school meaning of a younger boy performing menial tasks for a senior, which sometimes included homosexual acts; and with fag in the British sense of a cigarette, since around the end of the nineteenth century real men smoked cigars while cigarettes were preferred by women (and by implication by effeminate men); the usage fag end for a cigarette butt is also pointed to as a contributory reference. None of these survives an examination of the evidence.
It’s much more likely that it comes from a term of abuse — known from the early eighteenth century — for a shrewish, bad-tempered or offensive woman, often as old faggot or silly old faggot. This usage survived well into the twentieth century, until it was eased out by the homosexual sense, still to be heard, for example, on British television shows and films into the 1970s. It turns up, to take just one case, in one of the Ingoldsby Legends by Richard Barham (1840): “The Baron started: ‘What’s that you say, you old faggot?’ He ran round by his horse’s tail; The woman was gone!” Its origin lay in the bundle of sticks sense — such a woman was regard as a burden, a baggage (a related derogatory term that goes back to Shakespeare’s time).
The homosexual sense began to appear in Britain in the 1960s, to judge from a comment in the New Statesman in March 1966: “The American word ‘faggot’ is making advances here over our own more humane ‘queer’.”