Part one of this essay can be found here.
Faggot “bundle of firewood,” which can be spelled with g or with gg, came to Middle English from French. Modern French has fagot (with the same meaning) and fagoter “tie up (wood, etc.) in bundles.” Italian fagotto “bassoon,” ultimately of the same origin (or so it seems), spread to many languages. French fagot has no figurative meanings, but fagoter surfaced with the sense “dress up (a child, oneself) like a scarecrow” as early as the 16th century. This development appears to be unrelated to the surprising fortunes of faggot in English. Alongside faggot, we find fag. I will return to the connection between them later. At this stage, they will be treated as doublets.
This is what we have (the dates of the earliest citations are from the OED). Fagot: “old woman” (the end of 16th century), “person temporarily hired to supply a deficiency at the muster or on the roll of a company or a regiment” (the end of the 17th century), and since 1882 fagot as a term of reproach, used about children of both sexes, adults, and stray cows has been recorded. In 1914, fagot “(male) homosexual” made its debut on a printed page in the United States. Fag: “servant; drudge, drudgery” (1775), “work hard” (1780), “junior in a public school” (1785; British public, when applied to school, means “private,” and this sense of fag is especially well-known from literature), “to be a fag (at school)” (1806), “make a fag” (1824), “weary one” (1826), “fieldsman” (1840), and “homosexual” (1923). We have seen that pimp did not originate with reference to intercourse or genitals: “provider of sex” is the latest meaning this word acquired. The same holds for faggot ~ fag: they were not coined with the meaning “homosexual.”
Numerous uninspiring hypotheses have been offered to explain the origin of fag. All the old ones are implausible, and some are downright ridiculous, for instance, fag was said to be the acronym F.A.G. “the fifth axiom of geometry.” The proposal that seems to hold out at least some promise connects fag (noun) with the verb fag “decline,” which allegedly yielded “wearied, fagged out; drudgery; servant.” Yet the 18th-century noun hardly developed naturally from any word belonging to a neutral style and designating fatigue (incidentally, fatigue did not avoid the suspicion of serving as the etymon of fag), for it has always been an undignified, slangy name for a despised servant. It probably progressed like pimp: from “human trash” to a specialized term of abuse, transferred to the sexual sphere surprisingly late. Even if fag “homosexual” was known before the first decades of the 20th century (words are always recorded some time after they arise, and words considered gross may have some currency in the language of the underworld long before they make their way into print), nothing testifies to the existence of the meaning “homosexual” in the 19th, let alone the 18th century.
Fag is not an independent creation. It is a clipped form of faggot, just as vet is a clipped form of veteran and veterinarian. English is chockfull of such forms. No sooner does a word appear than it is reduced to a monosyllable (consider lab, lib, doc, dorm, and whole phrases like U. of U. “The University of Utah”). The question then is how “bundle of wood (sticks)” became “old woman; bloke, brat; stray cow” and a vague synonym for “scoundrel.” It has reached such heights in its ability to insult and refer to cheap objects that in regional speech it can be applied to a dish made of the fry, liver, or inferior portions of a pig or ship, and a Devonshire mother was overheard yelling (long ago) to her daughter: “You stinking faggot, come here.” Fagot ~ faggot “bundle of firewood” is not a neat object. This is probably why French fagoter “tie up wood” acquired the facetious informal meaning “dress up like a scarecrow.” A similar reason may have contributed to the meaning of Engl. faggot “old shriveled woman,” though a metonymy should not be excluded since collecting brushwood was traditionally old women’s and children’s task (someone carrying faggots will be called a faggot).
Not later than in the seventeen-forties, pimp “bundle of wood” reached London. According to the OED, the first author to have used it in this sense was Daniel Defoe (1742). By contrast, pimp, both “ninny” and “pander,” surfaced in books at the beginning of the 17th century, so that in the days of Defoe Londoners must have known it well. When they learned the formerly provincial word pimp “bundle of firewood,” they could not help noticing the parallelism: pimp “pander”/”bundle of firewood”— faggot “old hag, slovenly child, person temporarily hired to supply a deficiency on the roll of a company”/ “bundle of wood.” Faggot might have remained a marginal term of abuse and developed ever new meanings, but pimp probably gave it a push. Slang and particularly Cockney slang revels in puns. Faggot suddenly became a piece of newfangled slang, gained popularity at schools, guaranteed its survival by clipping, partly merged with fag “decline; droop; fag end,” and was finally put to use by homosexuals or by those who wanted to humiliate them. Pimp “pander, provider of sex” and faggot ~ fag are not synonyms, but both emerged with reference to disdained forms of social behavior, and no other part of vocabulary is so mercilessly rude as is the vocabulary of the sexual sphere. This is how I see the history of faggot and fag. A mere guess, as Walter W. Skeat used to say on such occasions.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”