Friday, January 19, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

Here's a reprint from an old "Carnival of Etymologies" since the word is back in the news, for some incredibly stupid reason having to do with some actor who was accused of saying it and then defended himself by saying he didn't say it, but in the course of the defense he said the word, and so, ... oy.

Burning at the stake was a famous form of legal execution in old Europe, primarily reserved for heretics, since such a death enacted popular beliefs regarding the punishments of Hell. The stake as a place of execution is attested in English from c.1205.

The fires were kindled with bundles of twigs, called faggots, so that the phrase fire and faggot was used to mean "punishment of a heretic." Heretics who recanted were required to wear an embroidered figure of a faggot on their sleeve as an emblem and reminder of what they deserved.

This has led to the widespread but mistaken insistence that the modern slang term faggot "male homosexual" originated because male homosexuals were burned at the stake. This is an etymological urban legend. Burning was sometimes a punishment meted out to homosexuals in Christian Europe (on the suggestion of the Biblical fate of Sodom and Gomorah), but in England, where parliament had made homosexuality a capital offense in 1533, hanging was the method prescribed.

Any use of faggot in connection with public executions had long become an English historical obscurity by the time the word began to be used for "male homosexual" in 20th century American slang.

The slang use of faggot instead is probably from earlier contemptuous use of the word to mean "woman," especially an old and unpleasant one, in reference to a "bundle of sticks," as something awkward that has to be carried. The word was used in this sense in the 20th century by D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, among others. It may also be reinforced by Yiddish faygele "homosexual," literally "little bird." It also may have roots in British public school slang fag "a junior who does certain duties for a senior," with suggestions of "catamite," which comes from ther verb fag.

Faggot meaning "bundle of twigs bound up," ultimately comes from Latin fascis "bundle of wood." This word has another connection with executions, via Latin fasces "bundle of rods containing an axe with the blade projecting," a symbol of state authority carried before a lictor (a superior Roman magistrate). It represented his power over life and limb: the sticks symbolized punishment by whipping, the axe head execution by beheading. The word fascis probably is cognate with Old English bæst "inner bark of the linden tree," which is related to modern bast and baste.

When the anti-communist political movement in Italy organized itself in 1919, it used the same word, which in modern Italian had become fascio, with a secondary sense of "group, association," but they certainly also had in mind the Roman fasces, since they used it as their party symbol. The world now knows them as fascists.

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