The F Word (no, not that F word)
In the last 18 months, my Twitter feed has exposed me to new trends. One trend has included the progressively popular use of a word that previously I wouldn’t dare say. The F word. No, the other F word. Think cigarettes? You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you? It’s fag, plus the family of words it’s surrounded by – faggot, faggy, faggoty. It’s not in news stories nor is it in comments from trolls. It is from inside the gay community. I must have missed the memo, but it seems fag has been wrestled from the hands of bigots and claimed by the community it once insulted, who now wear it as a badge.
Image via Sky News
Yet, any time I see the word fag or faggy, I squirm. When and how and why was it decided we were now accepting this word? Is it the new ‘queer’? I wonder whether such a slur could ever be truly reclaimed, and whether I would ever feel comfortable using it.
To look towards a ‘faggy’ future, we have to look back.
The process of (a)melioration, words gaining a positive connotation, is a linguistic journey, and one that can have a happy ending. A slur is taken by the community that it once targeted, adopted and adapted, to then appear in common parlance and culture. I think of it like anti-venom: something harmful is altered, worked in a chemist’s lab, and transformed into something healing, or at least less harmful. Just look at ‘queer’ as a topical example. From abnormality and otherness to a slur, over the decades, ‘queer’ has ascended through murky depths, becoming an identity and a label. It has even found its place within the halls of academia – I spent hours listening to lecturers discuss queer theory.
As a slur is reclaimed, new rules or etiquettes are attached to it, setting parameters on how the word can be used and preventing it from being re-weaponised. Being reclaimed is not a free pass; using these terms incorrectly, intentionally or not, draws upon its pejorative past rather than its ameliorated present. For queer, it would be in bad taste for someone to shout it from an open car window. Instead, someone may identify as queer and ask to be referred to as such.
Now that we’ve had that linguistics lesson, we return to the matter, or rather the word, at hand. Fag. Typing and seeing it on my page makes me grimace, and saying it (or trying to) leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Other queered insults like poof don’t offend me as much as fag. I wonder whether it’s partly phonetic, the aggressively fricative ‘f’, heard in ‘fat’ and ‘fuck’, followed by the hard ‘g’. But how do the words become slurs?
Thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary (and Google), we can trace fag’s etymological lineage. In the 14th century, it meant a bundle of sticks used in executions, especially for heretics. If said heretic recanted their crime, they would be forced to carry a faggot as penance, a mark of their crime. (Think The Scarlet Letter. Or ‘Easy A’.) This idea of public punishment and shame would perhaps lend itself to a slur. However, the idea that faggot is a gay slur because faggots of wood were used for burning gay people is an urban myth. So, we look elsewhere.
In the 16th century, it was used to refer to a ‘troublesome or useless woman’ often with an added adjective such as ‘you lazy faggot’. When researching, I found there was precedent for female-coded words to be taken, twisted and turned into a slur for gay men. Sissy, nancy (boy) and, I suppose now, faggot exemplify this. There is a definite sentiment of sexism – what could be more insulting to a man than being compared to a woman. In my mind, these words draw attention to the stereotype of the effeminate gay man; femininity displayed by anyone other than a woman is mocked. To me, fag can be seen as an attack on and assumption of the effeminacy of gay men.
Image via Reuters
Gatekeeping slurs // Image via Reddit
Writing this, I felt the presence of a certain spectre. It appeared when talking to other people about fag and faggot; it appeared when I was editing too. Whether we can compare fag and its apparent reclamation to the n-word. Comparing pejoratives is tricky territory, but having a comparison linguistically might aid our understanding.
Patrick, a gay guy I was in university halls with, 26, thinks you can’t compare the them because the struggles faced by the two groups are too distinct: ‘you can’t hide being black where I guess you could hide being gay’. I agree with Patrick on perhaps a cultural and socio-political level.
Linguistically, however, there might be more to it. Hugh, 53, who has studied the effects of language on marginalised groups, can only see both these words as slurs, comparing them to words like ‘gay’. ‘They never had a positive meaning to begin with’, he says, ‘why would anyone want to use them in any other way?’ ‘Words like ‘gay’ on the other hand had a positive definition: happy and merry’.
Though the use of gay as in gay men may not be tied to its original meaning, I can understand what Hugh is saying. Reclaiming might be used to take the sting out a slur, its ability to injure diminished in the mouths of its targets. But how can we negotiate claiming a slur that’s only ever been used to cause injury?
Reclaimed or not, fag could still be slurred within the community itself. Internalised homophobia is a persistent issue. While we may insist on faggot and faggotry for every gay man, those strong ties to campness and flamboyance might be hard to swallow It’d be like throwing mud – yes, you hit your target but you’re just as filthy.
The historic gay community has to be considered too. When I talk about fag and faggot bandied around on Twitter, it’s gay millennials pioneering this. What do the older generations think? What do the gay men who couldn’t be out, couldn’t marry and lived under Section 28 think about this? Attempting to ameliorate a slur can be hard for those who have only heard it spat out as an insult.
Reclaiming slurs is a tricky business. There is no quick fix and not everyone is going to agree. And with words like fag and faggot, the injuries they’ve caused cannot so easily be soothed by this. For me, fag and its siblings will remain a thorn in my side, a stone thrown. To return to my anti-venom analogy: having an anti-venom does not make the original any less poisonous nor does it prevent you from being stung.
Perhaps I will come around one day, tweeting about my West End workouts, engaging in high level advanced faggotry, that ‘-(t)ry’ ending heard in mastery, artistry and even wizardry. Until then, I will likely continue to see these words online, wincing as I do; I will continue to skip over that line in ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ every Christmas. Those who have reclaimed it, I salute you. But for now, a fag for me is a secret vice after a night out.