This is a guest post by H.S. Cross, the author of the novels Grievous (FSG, 2019) and Wilberforce (FSG, 2015).
Americans are familiar with the word fag as a gay slur, but across the pond, this is not necessarily the case. When I first encountered the word in English boarding school novels, I was shocked, but I soon learned that there was more to fag than ugly insults hurled on Christopher Street. The word has a long history, stretching back to the early 1300s, but it was not until the 1920s that it began to be used in the context of sexuality. For seven centuries, fag and faggot were not strong language but instead commonplace in schools, government, work, agriculture, and sports, chiefly in Britain.
I write fiction set in an English boarding school between the World Wars, so I have to deal with the word fag all the time in one of its non-derogatory usages. A reviewer once praised me (I think?) for my “unflinching use of the word fag,” as if there were a way around the word in the English school context. There isn’t.
In the British male boarding school world of yesteryear, the word fag isn’t even sweary; it simply denotes a junior boy who performs menial tasks, usually for an older boy, who in return, mentors him. It’s a neutral word – no sexual connotation. The OED traces this particular usage back to the eighteenth century, which was when the “fagging system” at England’s public (e.g. private) schools began to appear. The “fagging system” was one way schools carried out their mission to cultivate rulers of Britain’s empire, for how could one learn good leadership without first having served? As Rudyard Kipling put it in his poem “A School Song”:
Some beneath the further stars
Bear the greater burden:
Set to serve the lands they rule,
(Save he serve no man may rule),
Serve and love the lands they rule;
Seeking praise nor guerdon.
Whether the fagging system as practiced in English schools actually formed wise leaders, or whether it was merely a neat way to get perks as a senior, the UK term fag and its connotation of paying dues persisted well into the twentieth century, both in schools and in government circles. The usage itself derives from the verb form of fag, meaning “to work hard and exhaust strength.” Examples stretch back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century and possibly derive from or blend with the word flag, also denoting exhausted strength. Even today, Brits use fag as a verb meaning to work unpleasantly hard, or as a noun for such work: “Fagged away at laundry—it would have been better to have put it in the washing-machine” (A. Masters, Life Discarded, 2016). There’s also the fun and very British passive construction can’t be fagged, meaning can’t be bothered, the equivalent of can’t be arsed (which is also fun): “No one can be fagged with planting at this time” (The Times, 2008).
At many British boarding schools back in the day, the entire first year (ages 12 or 13) would serve as fags and so would be referred to collectively as the fags. The gorgeous 1984 film Another Country depicted a school, modeled after Eton, where a senior prefect stepped into the school corridor and bellowed, “Boy up!” at the top of his lungs; all the fags came running, and the last one to arrive was given the errand to do. In schools where fags were assigned to or chosen by individual seniors for the year, the senior might be known as the younger boy’s fagmaster. In the verb form, the junior boy would fag for or serve the senior, and the senior might fag the junior, i.e. compel him to serve. Again, no sexual connotation.
School fagging also gave rise to the cricket slang to fag out, which meant to field, especially in outlying positions near the boundary. During endless afternoons of cricket, junior boys were often sent to distant positions and expected to wait there, away from the action, and throw back the balls that occasionally sailed their way.
Of course, the derogatory use of fag is the one most familiar to contemporary Americans, but it appears not to have arisen until 1920s. There’s an urban legend that homosexuals were called fags, short for faggot, because faggot meant a bundle of twigs, and – so the legend claims – homosexuals were burned at the stake in medieval times like or with bundles of twigs. Though sensational, this etymology is apocryphal, and it’s even doubtful whether men were burned at the stake for homosexual practice, at least in sufficient numbers for it to enter the language. Like most fake news, though, there’s some truth in the theory: faggot does denote a bundle of twigs, a usage dating to the fourteenth century, and the bundle-of-twigs idea did indirectly give rise to the gay slur—just not via burnings at the stake.
Rewind to the sixteenth century, and you’ll find a regional UK use of faggot as a derogatory term for a woman (because a bundle of twigs is a kind of baggage, a burden, and so is an unpleasant woman). It was often paired with an intensifying adjective, like lazy, dirty, or old/auld: “Rot her, the dirty little faggot, she torments me” (T. W. Tone, Diary, 1796). Even in the late twentieth century, Irish author D. Healy was writing, “Mrs. Smith wants a cherry cake at five, my mother would say. Does she, the faggot” (Bend for Home, 1996).
Given that derogatory terms for women are often transferred over to abuse homosexual men — queen, bitch, etc. — and given that this meaning of faggot was current at the end of World War I (D. H. Lawrence, 1926: “To me she is fractious, tiresome, and a faggot.”), it isn’t hard to see the misogynistic roots of strong-language fag and faggot, first cited in the US Medical Rev. of Reviews, 1921: “Does the ‘fairy’ or ‘fag’ really exist?”
If you’re not fagged out by this discussion, I’ll leave you with a quirky end note: the Faggot Vote. It’s not the Pink Vote, but rather a form of semi-legitimate eighteenth-century voter fraud. At that time in British politics, there was a property requirement to vote; thus, the OED informs us, the Faggot Vote referred to “a vote for a particular candidate or party fraudulently contrived by nominally transferring sufficient property” (picture bundles of twigs being given to someone who lacks them) “to a person who would not otherwise be qualified to vote.”