Faggot

What on earth is the word ‘faggot’ doing in a website devoted to matters culinary, you may ask? The modern derogatory slang word for a homosexual has now become so invasive that many people are probably unaware of its other meanings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of faggot is ‘a bundle of sticks, twigs, or brushwood tied together for use as fuel’. But it also applies to an archetypal English working-class dish consisting of minced pork liver, heart, belly and sometimes lights, flavoured with various herbs and spices, rolled into a ball and usually wrapped in caul before being fried or baked. Faggots are traditionally accompanied by mushy peas. Like their relations (haggis in Scotland, and Beuschel in Austria, both of which contain heart, liver and lungs) they use parts of the pig that would otherwise normally be discarded.

The food historian Janet Clarkson, who often pops up with invaluable source material on her website, theoldfoodie.com, notes that in 1872 a contributor to All the Year Round, a periodical edited by Charles Dickens, gave a short description of edible faggots in a piece which firmly places them in their 19th-century social and historical perspective: ‘Late on certain evenings the nostrils of the wanderer in Newport Market are assailed by an odour of exceeding savouriness. This hunger-compelling scent proceeds from a singular dish called “faggots”, all hot — round lumps compounded, it is believed, chiefly of the interior organs of animals, highly seasoned; the faggot is, indeed, a sort of degenerate Southern imitation of the Scottish national dish, haggis. Hungry children crowd round the steaming dishes of brown and savoury spheres, greedily inhaling the delightful odour, while those happy in the accidental possession of “browns”, rush to gratify their appetites in more substantial fashion. Under the flaring gas-lights slipshod girls, carrying basins hidden under their pinafores, bear off triumphantly their supper to the poor home, where probably even such slender meals as “faggots” afford are somewhat scarce.’

Today, such a mouthwatering description – and one that smacks of Dickens’ own flowery prose style – could hardly apply to the mass-produced deep-frozen faggots produced by a company called Mr Brain, whose slogan is : ‘It’s no wonder 100 million faggots are eaten in the UK every year!”

As for the connection between a bundle of sticks and a derogatory term for a homosexual, there is no evidence, as some overenthusiastic folk etymologists have claimed, in support of the fact that wooden faggots were used in mediaeval times to burn heretics at the stake because of their sexual practices.

The word ‘faggot’ (or ‘fagot’) does indeed have a history of being used to refer to the executions of heretics at the stake, although this does not date as far back as medieval times. Phrases like ‘fire and faggot’ and ‘fry a faggot’ were used to refer to such executions, but the word ‘faggot’ was never applied to the heretics themselves, referring instead to the fuel for the fire. And it did not designate gay men until centuries later.

The first printed use of ‘faggot’ in the latter sense dates from 1914. It is found in Lewis E. Jackson and C. R. Hellyer's A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang, with Some Examples of Common Usages, which lists the following example under the word ‘drag’:

All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.

The issue has been further confused by the term ‘fag’ (though not ‘faggot’) which, in British public-school slang, refers to a member of a junior class who performs chores and drudge work for seniors, with the implication that a homosexual relationship may exist.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this British school meaning derives from the verb ‘to fag’, which is generally believed to be an alteration, going back to the 1520s, of the verb ‘to flag’, in its sense of ‘to droop’ or ‘to go limp’. Used transitively — i.e. ‘to make (someone or something) fatigued, to tire by labour’ — it is first attested in 1826; and as the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, its sense of ‘to put to work at certain duties, compel to work for one’s benefit,’ from 1806, is from the British public-school slang noun ‘fag’. And therefore when we ‘can’t be fagged,’ it means we really don’t want to wear ourselves out the way those poor schoolboys did for so many years.

We know this public-school sense cannot be the origin of the gay epithet because, in the latter, the form ‘faggot’ appears earlier than ‘fag’ and is American, not British. The practice of juniors performing menial chores for their seniors disappeared from American schools in the early 19th century. This sense of ‘fag’ was virtually unknown to Americans in the early 20th century when the epithet came into use.

There is a long history of using both fag and faggot in popular culture, usually in reference to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender 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.

Clarkson has unearthed an interesting clue as to how a bundle of sticks became an insult. John Camden Hotten, in his Slang Dictionary; or the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and ‘Fast’ Expressions of High and Low Society, Many with Their Etymology, and a Few with Their History Traced (1864), notes that a faggot is ‘a bundle of bits of the “stickings” [boneless inferior meat] (hence probably its name) sold for food to the London poor. It is sometimes called a DUCK. In appearance it resembles a Scotch “haggis.” (...) FAGOT: a term of opprobrium used by low people to children and women; “you little FAGOT, you!” FAGOT was originally a term of contempt for a dry, shrivelled old woman, whose bones were like a bundle of sticks, only fit to burn.’

In this derogatory meaning, ‘faggot’ survived well into the 20th century, until it was eased out by the homosexual sense, but could still be heard, for example, on British television shows and films into the 1970s.

As for ‘fag’, the British slang word for a cigarette, this is a clipping of ‘fag-end’, or the end of a piece of cloth or rope, a remnant. It refers to the cigarette hanging from the mouth, as in The Saturday Review of 30 June 1888: ‘They … burn their throats with the abominable “fag,” with its acrid paper and vile tobacco.’

Finally, amidst all these pejorative insinuations, we can point to an extremely positive aura surrounding the French word, fagot, which has the same meaning as the first sense of ‘faggot’ in English, i.e. a bundle of logs. If a French person offers you a bottle of wine ‘de derrière les fagots’, it implies that it is a wine of quite exceptional quality which is normally kept hidden from view.

P.S. While I was writing this post, a vivid image used by de Gaulle about Tito kept on lurking in the back of my mind. I have now managed to retrieve exactly what de Gaulle said – thanks to the encyclopaedic memory of my old friend, Jonathan Fenby (author of many books on contemporary France and China, among other things): according to Alain Peyrefitte, who held several ministerial posts under the general, de Gaulle told him in 1964 that Yugoslavia would not last in united form – ‘For that there needs to be a Yugoslav nation. There isn’t. There are just bits of wood tied together with string. That piece of string is Tito. When he is no longer there, the bits will fall apart.’

  • Ginette Vincendeau

    I would add to this fascinating discussion that there is also a negative sense of ‘fagot’ in French, ‘sentir le fagot’ which means being a non-believer (fagot referring, as in English, to the stake) – a somewhat old-fashioned, but still used, expression.

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