How did a word meaning a bundle of sticks become an epithet for a gay man? It was process of gradual semantic shift over several centuries and continents.
The ultimate origin of faggot, the word for a bundle of sticks, is unknown. The English word comes from the French fagot. There is an apparent cognate in the Italian fagotto, so there may be some common Latin root. But if so, it has been lost. From Cursor Mundi, a Northumbrian poem from before 1300, as it appears in Göttingen University Library MS. Theol. 107:
Suord ne fir forgat he noght,
And ȝong ysaac a fagett broght.
(Sword nor fire he forgot not,
And young Isaac a faggot brought.)1
The most likely explanation for the homosexual epithet goes like this: Faggot originally meant a bundle of sticks, which is a burden to be carried. In the late 16th century, faggot became an epithet for a woman, especially a shrewish one. The sense probably comes from the idea of a faggot being a burden or baggage (not unlike the modern ball and chain). From Thomas Lodge’s 1591 Catharos Diogenes in his Singularity:
A filbert is better than a faggot, except it be an Athenian she handfull.2
The derogatory term for a gay man comes from this sense meaning a woman. In this way it parallels other slang terms like queen and fairy, words connoting feminine qualities and applied to gay men. This application to gay men is relatively recent and American in origin, not appearing until the 20th century. From Jackson & Hellyer’s Vocabulary of Criminal Slang from 1914:
Drag, Example: “All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.”3
The clipped form fag appears as early as 1921. From John Lind’s The Female Impersonators of that year:
Androgynes known as “fairies,” “fags,” or “brownies.”4
There are also several false etymologies for this slang sense of faggot.
One that commonly appears on the internet is that it is a medieval term referring to burning homosexuals at the stake, the wood in the bundle serving as fuel for the fire. And indeed faggot has a history of being used to refer to the executions of heretics at the stake, although this does not date quite as far back as medieval times. Phrases like fire and faggot and fry a faggot were used to refer to such executions, although the word faggot was never applied to the heretic himself, referring instead to the fuel for the fire. And, as we have seen, the word was not applied to gay men until much, much later. We can see this reference to the burning of heretics in Hugh Latimer’s Sermons and Remains, written before 1555:
Running out of Germany for fear of the fagot.
And in the Bishop Richard Montagu’s 1621 Diatribæ on the First Part of the Late History of Tithes:
You deserued to fry a fagot.5
Another explanation that is commonly proffered is that it is from the slang of English public schools, where a fag is a lower classman who performs chores and drudge work for seniors, with an implication that a homosexual relationship may exist. This scholastic sense of fag dates to the late 18th century. From Richard Cumberland’s The Observer of 1785:
I had the character at school of being the very best fag that ever came into it.
This British school sense comes from the verb to fag, meaning to tire, to become fatigued, as the work would make the younger student tired.6 It is not related to faggot. From Jehan Palsgrave’s 1530 Lesclarcissement de la Langue Françoyse:
I fagge from the trouthe (Lydgate): this terme is nat in our comen use.7
We know this schoolyard 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 underclassmen 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.
Some suggest that it might be influenced by the Yiddish word fagele, literally meaning little bird. We can’t dismiss a possible Yiddish influence out of hand. There is an awfully big gap in the history of the epithet and a Yiddishism appearing in early 20th century America is plausible, but it seems an unlikely explanation and there is no direct evidence to support it. And the influence could have gone the other way—the homosexual sense of the Yiddish word may have come from the English faggot.
Finally we should address another unrelated British slang term, the use of fag to mean a cigarette. This is a clipping of fag-end or the end of a piece of cloth or rope, a remnant. It’s a reference to the cigarette hanging from the mouth. From the Saturday Review of 30 June 1888:
They...burn their throats with the abominable “fag,” with its acrid paper and vile tobacco.8
1Richard Morris, Cursor Mundi: A Northumbrian Poem of the XIVth Century, Part I: Text, Lines 1-4954, Early English Text Society, vol. OS 57 (London: Oxford University Press, 1874), lines 3163-64.
3Louis E. Jackson and C.R. Hellyer, A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (Portland, OR: Modern Printing Co., 1914), 30.
4Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 716.
5OED2, faggot, fagot, n.
6OED2, fag, n.1 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50081640>.
7OED2, fag, v.1 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50081645>.
8OED2, fag, n.4 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50081643>.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton