Lexicon Valley: The History, Future, and Reclamation of the Word Faggot

A show about the mysteries of English.
Feb. 13 2012 12:38 PM

The Other F-Word

Listen to Slate’s show about the history and future of the word faggot.

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Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 2: A Bundle of Faggots

The word faggot has been experiencing a kind of renaissance recently, with athletes like Kobe Bryant wielding it in anger, the director Brett Ratner using it in jest, and the comedian Louis C.K. defending it as a generalized insult. But does the word remain irredeemably “rooted in homophobia,” as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation asserts? Or is there a way to defang and repurpose the word, as some in the gay community would like? On this week’s Lexicon Valley, co-host Bob Garfield and I dig into the fraught history and possible future of “The Other F-Word.”

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This week’s LexiConundrum features the adjectival present participle (you know, the “-ing” form of a verb when acting as an adjective). Many people, places, and things can be described in the English language with a two-word phrase for which the first word is an adjectival present participle and the second a simple noun—as in marching band, paring knife, or curling iron. Can you find phrases that fit this pattern for the following sets of initials?

1. B___ A___
2. D___ R___
3. F___ S___
4. L___ W___
5. M___ V___
6. P___ P___
7. R___ C___
8. S___ V___
9. T___ F___
10. W___ B___

Send your answers or any other thoughts about the show to slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode in the player below:

You'll find a list of all our episodes at slate.com/lexiconvalley.

Below is a transcript of this episode:

BOB: So, uh, I’m ashamed to admit this, concerning this “other F-word,” but I use it pretty much all the time ironically—I mean never as an epithet that has anything to do with, you know, sexuality.

MIKE: Give me an example of how you might use it.

BOB: You say to me, “I know we were gonna record at 12:30, but I’m delayed to 12:45.” I say, “Pfff, faggot.”

MIKE: So calling me a jerk basically.

BOB: But not even that because I don’t even think you’re a jerk and the 15 minutes doesn’t matter to me. It’s just a joke.

MIKE: OK. I put together a short list of just some of the people who have used the word over the last year or so, and, you know, you may or may not be in good company depending on what you think of them. I’ll take it chronologically. In April of 2011, Kobe Bryant, basketball player with the Los Angeles Lakers, was benched after getting a technical foul in a game against the Spurs. He then called the ref a “fucking faggot.” Incidentally, often when someone uses this word publicly, they then go into damage control mode and issue an apology. Kobe Bryant’s came the very next day. He said, “What I said last night should not be taken literally. My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period.”

BOB: He was just saying that he wasn’t actually accusing the ref of being gay.

MIKE: As if that’s somehow a legitimate accusation?

BOB: As if, in the Seinfeldian phrase, there were anything wrong with that. He was just trying to clarify that he wasn’t making any sexual reference.

MIKE: Right.

BOB: That he was just calling the guy, you know, a faggot.

MIKE: Let’s get to that distinction a little bit later. In any case, in May of 2011 Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls said, “fuck you, faggot” to a fan at the American Airlines Arena. In September, Wayne Simmonds, a hockey player with the Philadelphia Flyers (your hometown, Bob), called someone on the Rangers a “fucking faggot.” And in November, the director Brett Ratner was at a Q&A for his movie Tower Heist. The question put to him was, “So, you get this entire group of actors together. What was your rehearsal like?” And Ratner replied, “Rehearsal? What’s that? Rehearsal is for fags.”

BOB: Yeah, they’re always so prepared, those faggots.

MIKE: I never noticed. Now, Hollywood is arguably less tolerant of homophobic slurs than, you know, the NBA or the NHL, although the NBA did fine Kobe Bryant pretty substantially. I think it may have even been like $100,000. Nevertheless, Ratner was effectively forced to resign as producer of the Academy Awards. However, can you guess, Bob, who in 2011 proved even less tolerant of that word than Hollywood?

BOB: All right, the American Bowling Congress.

MIKE: You’re sort of in the ballpark. You’re right in that I’m not going for a person. The answer is Canada.

BOB: [laughs] You know what? That was the very next thing that was gonna come out of my mouth.

MIKE: In January of 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council banned from the radio there the Dire Straights song “Money for Nothing” because it contains the word faggot.

BOB: Wait, wait, wait. The Dire Straights song from like 1985?

MIKE: Mm-hmm. That one.

BOB: Just got up to Canada way, did it?

[“Money for Nothing” plays:
See the little faggot with the earring and the make-up
Yeah buddy that's his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he's a millionaire]

MIKE: Believe it or not, this council is not a government agency. It’s actually a group formed by the broadcasters themselves to sort of voluntarily self-police their own content. In their ruling they said, “Like other racially driven words in the English language, faggot is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so.” Now, anyone who is at all familiar with that Dire Straights song knows that Mark Knopfler, who wrote it, was putting that word in the mouth of a character whose worldview he was in a sense satirizing. I guess many Canadians pointed out that fact to the council because some months later they reversed their ruling.

BOB: Yeah, so the use of the word in the song, in the context of the character who is uttering it, it’s self-consciously obnoxious. And banning that is like banning Huckleberry Finn in middle school because of the N-word. In the context of the characters and the history, it should be illuminating for students to encounter that word.

MIKE: So let’s talk about the etymological and historical context for the word faggot, which appears in the English language sometime in the late 1200s, early 1300s when it meant simply "a bundle of sticks." I remember in elementary school someone would call you a faggot on the playground and your retort would be, "Yeah, well, a faggot is a bundle of sticks."

BOB: Yeah, it's kind of a faggoty thing to say, but you know what's interesting about those playground moments is not only does the guy who's just called you a faggot probably even know what he's accusing you of—because he's too young to, you know, kind of get it—you don't know what he's accusing you of and you don't even know why a bundle of sticks.

MIKE: No, no idea.

BOB: It's this very kind of academic argument based on no real real-world notion of what the conversation's about.

MIKE: Precisely. I, as a kid, had no idea what a bundle of sticks would be for. It was purely a rhetorical retort. I didn't even really know why you would need such a word until I saw it for the first time in print.

BOB: Lunch note from Mom?

MIKE: How did you know?

BOB: [laughing] Well, I, I've met Mrs. Vuolo.

MIKE: No, no, of course not. Growing up, we had in our house a series of Newbery Award-winning novels, a kind of box set, and it included the very famous Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. I remember reading it and coming across this passage:

TAPE: After the Aleuts had killed our men at Coral Cove, all the women of our tribe had singed their hair short as a sign of mourning. I had singed mine too with a faggot, but now it had grown long again and came to my waist.

MIKE: I thought, “Oh, OK, that's what you might do with a bundle of sticks, make some sort of burning implement out of it.” In fact, in the Middle Ages and, you know, well beyond, these bundles were often used as kindling for a fire, and they became very closely associated with the burning of heretics. But there were other things you might do with a bundle of sticks. You might fashion it into a whip for flailing people or a broom for sweeping.

BOB: None of this seems to have any connection etymologically with homosexuality or a pejorative of any kind. How does a bundle of sticks used as kindling or as a broom connect to an emasculating slur?

MIKE: At some point the word faggot takes a figurative turn and is adopted as a pejorative term for a woman. Not a gay man, not yet. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as "a term of abuse or contempt applied to a woman" starting in the late 1500s and lasting well into the 20th century. In fact, it's probably still used this way in parts of Great Britain and Ireland, and if you've ever read James Joyce's Ulysses, toward the end of the novel Molly Bloom is lying in bed next to Leopold.

BOB: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. You got to the end of Ulysses?

MIKE: Well, I may have skipped a few ...

BOB: I got to Page 112 maybe 16 to 18 times, but I certainly never got to the end.

MIKE: If you had gotten to the end, Molly is thinking back to when they were younger and they lived near an elderly woman whom Molly refers to in her thoughts as "that old faggot Mrs. Riordan."

BOB: Oh, poor Mrs. Riordan. But you said figurative for women, but I don't understand what the metaphor is. What's the reference?

MIKE: Nobody knows for sure, but there are a few theories. One theory suggests that gathering and carrying bundles of wood is burdensome and that men who have been married for a certain number of years may view their wives as a burden. So here faggot would be similar to "ball and chain."

BOB: So bending over to pick up kindling and having to schlep it back to the house—that's a burden and a wife is a burden. It seems like kind of a stretch, Mike.

MIKE: It does. I asked Arnold Zwicky. He's a linguist at Stanford University who has written about the word faggot. I asked him what he thought of that theory. He said it's a nice story—well it's not really a nice story—it could be true, but there's no real evidence for it. He's a fan of another theory for which there is evidence of a kind. Here's Arnold Zwicky.

ARNOLD ZWICKY: There's another word, now pretty much obsolete, besom, also used for a bundle of rods or sticks and as an implement for sweeping, that with the pronunciation bizzum in Scots and dialect forms of English was used, as the (Oxford English Dictionary) puts it, "as a contemptuous or jocular designation for a woman." The sense development for faggot is exactly parallel to that: treating a woman, like, in effect, a broom.

BOB: This is kind of like, I don't know, finding another skeleton just like Lucy and realizing that there's a second line of ancestry to modern human. Tell me the connection between besom and faggot.

MIKE: Both of these words started out as a bundle of sticks. Both of them ended up at some point being a pejorative for a woman and, as a kind of intermediate etymological step, both of them were connected to either literally a broom or broom-making in some way. And Zwicky is suggesting that faggot made this pejorative, figurative leap somehow through the broom connection.

BOB: So it's because brooms are women's work, right? Whereas, I don't know, anvils and swords and, you know, uh, microphones are for super-macho men.

MIKE: [laughing] Yes, there's that. There's also something else. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the character Amycus Carrow calls another character, Minerva McGonagall, an "old besom." Minerva McGonagall is a witch. Witches are now, and were even in the 1500s, very closely associated with brooms.

BOB: Uh, oh—so there's a figure of speech, I don't know what it is, where you call somebody by a word that is associated with people like them, right? Like you call a soldier a lance.

MIKE: Yes, exactly. It is called metonymy. Like referring to the king as the crown. So I think Zwicky is suggesting, yeah, in a sense identifying a woman as a broom is a form of metonymy, and that's how faggot made this figurative leap.

BOB: So I guess it's not much of a leap to see how a derogatory term for a woman would quickly come to be a derogatory term for a man, because questioning someone's masculinity, you know, somehow cuts so deep. Do we know where this began to happen?

MIKE: First of all, Zwicky says that any derogatory term for a woman, or a part of a woman, is eligible for use as a slur against gay men or men that are seen to be weak or effeminate. Like with the word pussy. That shift happened for the word faggot about 100 years ago. The very first (Oxford English Dictionary) citation for the word faggot as a term for a gay man is from 1914, though it's virtually certain that that usage had been in circulation for, you know, many years before that because it takes a while sometimes for shifts in meanings of words to be noticed and documented. And in fact, Zwicky says that dictionaries today have yet to catch up with still another shift in the meaning of the word faggot taking place right now.

ZWICKY: Starting from a slur on homosexuals or presumed homosexuals, the word has moved to a generalized insult with actually no imputation of sexuality at all. That's paralleled roughly by one of the extensions of gay itself, in the stupid, lame sense that's often associated with teenagers: That's so gay.

BOB: OK, so it's morphing to become a more generalized epithet that really has little or no connection with sexuality or insufficient masculinity or strength. It's now just a general insult, sometimes.

MIKE: Which is the way you use it, apparently.

BOB: So then I'm off the hook, right? So when I use the term hyperbolically in a situation that in no way calls for it, I'm just an extraordinarily witty man with not a homophobic bone in my body, right?

MIKE: I don't know. You know, for Zwicky, it all depends on the context.

ZWICKY: The deal with sensitive vocabulary is that it depends on who is using the word, to whom, and for what purpose. You can't say that a word is always offensive or never offensive. That's a total nonstarter as an argument. Nevertheless, people in general are inclined to believe in a kind of word magic, that the associations of a word come with it no matter who's using it, to whom, for what purposes. That's what GLAAD is doing—the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—and I disagree with them quite strongly. For them, any use of the word is offensive. It's intrinsically offensive.

MIKE: OK, there's something I need to mention here, Bob. Zwicky is not only a linguist, he's also a faggot.

BOB: [laughing] Well, well, well. Do you mean he is a faggot in the asexual sense of just being a jerk or that he is gay and you will be dealing with his attorneys, what?

MIKE: It sounds offensive when I say it, right?

BOB: Yes it does. Can I just jump in here? Yes, it does.

MIKE: However, Zwicky self-identifies as a faggot. He's a gay man who uses that word in his writing and in conversation sometimes. Now, why would a gay man use that word? The same reason that a black man might use the N-word or a woman might use the word bitch.

ZWICKY: One step is defiant uses. You use the word understanding that many people will find it offensive. So we get things like Pansy Division's song "Cocksucking Faggot," which is a wonderful reworking of the piece "Colored Spade" from Hair. So that's a defiant use, and that leads to merely reclaimed uses, where you go past defiance and use the word as an ordinary word in the way that dyke has largely been reclaimed as a word for lesbians. When reclamation works, then the word continues to be used without insult connotations anymore.

MIKE to ZWICKY: But are we quite there yet with the word faggot?

ZWICKY: Absolutely not. No, we're not there yet. No I'm, I'm on the leading edge [laughing], at the exact opposite end of the scale from the people at GLAAD, who are trying to wipe out any use of the word whatsoever. And nobody gets to legislate. Instead, these things are negotiated usually implicitly—sometimes explicitly, sometimes by actual disputation—but often just by people changing the way they talk.

[MUSIC: "Cocksucking Faggot" plays:
“I'm a cocksucking faggot, a flaming faggot
A fuck bunny, fruitcake, cum superdeli, homo”]

MIKE: So I think that Arnold Zwicky makes a lot of sense. Of course, Zwicky as a gay man is entitled to stand on that "leading edge," as he calls it, more so than you or me, Bob. Most of the rest of us, I think, have no choice but to remain spectators, you know, watching this tug of war between people like Zwicky and the folks at GLAAD. And it may be, says Zwicky, that this tug of war takes decades or that the opposing forces are equal enough that the word remains indefinitely in this kind of nebulous, awkward space.

BOB: Well, you know, let's just say there is that tug of war going on, Mike. You gotta assume though that the Zwicky crowd—those who militantly embrace the word to reclaim it, in his words—you know they're clearly making some progress because the society, at least in parallel as a matter of civil rights, is being far more embracing of homosexuality than it was when we were kids.

MIKE: Well, when you were a kid.

BOB: Thanks, that's very nice. But there's one more thread here, which is actually exactly where we started this conversation, right: the notion of using the word as a sort of generalized insult that has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality but is just so utilitarian. You know, I use it just as a sort of absurdity to be hyperbolic in a way that's as inappropriate as I can possibly make it, right? But, you know others just love the word for its descriptiveness. You've heard the Louis C.K. bit, right?

MIKE: I have, yeah, and I like it. But, you know, like Zwicky said, we're not there yet. It shouldn't be up to me to decide when and whether that word is suddenly OK.

BOB: In the way that you wouldn't, just because black friends use the word nigger among one another, you wouldn't venture to use it yourself.

MIKE: No, I wouldn't.

BOB: Well, you and Louis C.K. and Chris Rock have a different worldview.

MIKE: All right. You know, not there's anything wrong with that.

BOB: [laughing].

MONTAGE:

LOUIS C.K.: I miss that word, you know. I grew up saying that word, and I mean it never meant gay.

CHRIS ROCK: You don't have to be gay to act like a faggot. Anybody can act like a faggot.

LOUIS C.K.: When I was kid, you called somebody a faggot because they were being a faggot.

CHRIS ROCK: What if the person was acting like a faggot?

MIKE: I have one final question for you, Bob, before we move on to the LexiConundrum. Are you familiar with the Yiddish lullaby "Shlof Mayn Feygele"?

BOB: [laughing] Uh, no. No, but I see where you're going with this. My mom spoke some Yiddish. She wasn't a big lullabeister, but I do know from feygele, feygele, which—I think it means faggot.

MIKE: Not exactly, but the lullaby goes something like this:

BELLA VUOLO: [singing "Shlof Mayn Feygele"]

Shlof zhe mayn feygele, makh tsi dayn eygele,
Shlof mayn kind, shlof.
Shlof oys freydn, veys fun keyn leydn,
Shlof mayn tayer kind.

MIKE to BELLA: Thanks, Mom.

BELLA: Okay zindele, give me a call. I love you.

BOB: Awww. But this is, you know, this whole other thread to pull because there is this notion, right, of feygele as being someone who's "light in the loafers." Should we forget about bundles of sticks and besoms and, and look no farther than Eastern Europe?

MIKE: First of all, that really was my mom. She happens to be a native Yiddish speaker and would sing that lullaby to me when I was a child. Many Jews of a certain age refer to gay men as feygeles, which translates literally as "little bird." In the lullaby, "shlof mayn feygele, makh tsi dayn eygele" means "sleep my little bird, close your eyes." Now, feygele and faggot sound like they could be related. They're not. However, some have theorized that the use of feygele, which was really widespread, may have reinforced faggot becoming a dominant term of derision for a gay man.

BOB: So in other words, Mike, blame the Jews.

MIKE: Well, you know, you don't have to blame all Jews. You could just blame my mom.

BOB: My mom, too.

[Clip from The Simpsons:
MARTIN: He's right. Individually we are weak like a single twig, but as a bundle we form a mighty faggot.
BART: Well said.]

Mike Vuolo is senior producer of podcasts and editor of @lexiconvalley.