Ross James, speaking for the British ABC and Odeon cinema chains, was said to be incredulous at the reports. Why would they want to ban display of the word shagged in the title of Mike Myer’s newly-released Austin Powers sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, rude though the word is in Britain? It had been passed by the British Board of Film Classification, so why should they censor the censors?
Though it’s categorised in Britain as low slang, with the meaning of to copulate, shag isn’t in the same class of offensiveness as fuck. It turns up a lot, for example, in the more raunchy or late-night British television programmes, such as Men Behaving Badly, is virtually a trademark of some stand-up comedians and can frequently even be found in the columns of the more po-faced conservative newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph. Its status has shifted a lot in the nineties, with younger people now using it freely while we older ones still consider it off limits, at least in polite company. It’s a laddish word, implying a casual encounter to scratch a biological itch, with no emotional involvement. Not a word to use to your elderly maiden aunt (assuming you know a member of that endangered species), but equally not one to provoke banner-waving demonstrations calling for its removal. Usage in the Antipodes is similar to that in Britain, though with the addition of some splendidly coarse insults like the Australian sheep-shagger.
Across the Atlantic the word is much less well known, though Jesse Sheidlower of Random House tells me there are American examples of its use from Victorian times (alas, the wonderful Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang hasn’t yet reached the letter S). He suggests that cultural mixing in two World Wars introduced some Americans soldiers to the word, it being common among British troops they fought alongside. These days in America, I gather the few who know what it means employ it as a humorous Anglophilic affectation (typical of the film, it would seem).
Its origins are obscure. It’s first recorded by Francis Grose in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785. It’s thought by some to derive from an older sense of the verb that meant to shake about. We don’t know where that came from, either, though it’s probably connected to shake. This meaning fits the later one very well and it’s similar to the way that frig evolved (incidentally, a word whose constituency is pretty much the inverse of shag, being much better known in America than in Britain): at first this meant to move back and forth and then later evolved senses like to copulate and to masturbate. In the nineteenth century, shag was considered very vulgar in Britain and examples in print are rare (perhaps the best known is from that invaluable Victorian word fount, lexicographically speaking, the porno newsletter Pearl). The noun, for an act of copulation, dates only from the 1930s.
There are several other meanings of the word, including one which has the same origin as shaggy, used for a type of tobacco, for a sort of cloth or carpet (as in shag-pile), and as one name for various species of cormorant, which have a shaggy crest. Americans know it as a dance, the origin of whose name is disputed; they may also use it to mean to move quickly, to chase or pursue, or to retrieve something, as in baseball.
It turns out that the cinema chain was being disingenuous. Because it knows the word will be offensive to some patrons, it has now decided that all publicity and signs will call the film Austin Powers II, but posters and other materials which come from the distributors, as well as the film titles themselves, of course, will retain the American name. Sounds like a typically British compromise, you might say.
[My thanks go also to Jonathon Green and David Barnhart for their assistance in clearing up points of usage.]