Sunday, April 23, 2006

Faygeleh, Shmaygeleh

In which the Balabusta gets interested in etymology, and historical unpleasantness.

Yesterday I (oh, happy day!) attended the last of my awful Saturday seminars in Moraga. One of the workshops I attended was on dealing with homophobia in the classroom. It was a pretty good workshop. One of the articles in the packet, however, got me thinking...

The article repeated a fairly common story I've heard, beginning in high school, about the origins of the word 'faggot' as a derogatory term for homosexual men. The story goes that it's a reference to burning at the stake. Depending on which version you get, convicted homosexuals were required to gather a bundle of sticks (or faggot) for the fires that burned them, or else they were referred to as faggots simply because gay men were, like sticks, burned, or, in the most dramatic version, repeated in this article, gay men were used as kindling to burn witches with. This last is firmly asserted as fact by any number of pagan and gay writers. I have never seen a scrap of historical evidence of this idea. Doesn't mean it's not out there. But I have never seen anything, and it doesn't sound terribly realistic to me for a number of gruesome reasons.

So I checked in with the Shorter OED. Here's what I find:

First, 'faggot' seems to appear first as a term of abuse in the late 16th century, as a dialect term meaning an 'objectionable' old woman, child, or animal. The connection here seems to be that such a person or thing is a burden, like firewood you must drag around.

Slightly earlier, it also seems to mean a heretic, or a person pardoned of heresy (who had to wear a badge of a faggot in token of their escape from burning). This usage is rare, and limited to the mid 16th century. No direct connection seems to yet appear to homosexuality.

By the EARLY 20th CENTURY, well post the burning times, orginally in the United States, we get to 'faggot' meaning 'a male homosexual, especially of an effeminate type'.

OK. Here's MY take on this. The original dialect term of abuse crosses the pond with 16th and 17th century settlers, and eventually reemerges as a slightly different slang term of abuse. No connection with burning heretics or witches. End of story.

However, something else rings in the back of head while I look at this. 'ot' is a common diminutive ending in medieval English names. And while 'bird' is the common English for 'bird', it appears in Old English apparently without origin or cognates known. At one time, one wonders, did English dialects include another word, one closer related to the German 'vogel'? In other words, is 'faggot', 'little bird'? In other words, is 'faggot' 'faygeleh' in long-forgotten English dialect?

Since I know jack about the origins of the Yiddish term, I could be miles away here. But it's interesting, neyn?


Ben said...

It's interesting, yo. Actually, "feygele" in Yiddish only means "little bird." It was Jewish English speakers who thought of the pun faggot/feygele, but this meaning only occurs in English.

Anonymous said...

I had a visting professor from England once begin a story with the unfortunate line, "A friend of mine and I were in my flat sharing a fag..." He was a bit surprised when had to stop his lecture due to the uproar in the audience. "Oh yes, that has a different meaning here doesn't it?" That got lots of laughs. In England it means cigarette. It is an interesting word.