Article Thumbnail

The Surprisingly Complex Legacy of Brits Saying ‘Bum a Fag’

That the term is still acceptable in the U.K. is a quirk of linguistic history that has as much to do with gravy as homosexuality

We’re such stoners that 4/20 isn’t just a day, it’s an entire week. And it’s not just weed we love, it’s the act of smoking and everything even loosely related to breathing in toxic fumes — whether that’s chain-smoking cigarettes, vaping Juuls, suffocating a rack of ribs, or hell, even committing arson! Welcome to our exploration of all things smoke.

Fair warning: This story is about linguistics, homophobia and European history, and it contains frequent and uncensored uses of the F-word.

Until we hear them uttered back to us in a North American accent, we Britishers often don’t realize quite how bizarre our slang words and Britishisms can be. Or rather how bonkers they can be — “bonkers” being a classic bit of cartoon Cockney-speak that’s been bouncing around the American vernacular with increasing popularity in the past few years. As a polite and cheery term for the catastrophic breakdown of everything we hold to be true and the world we know spinning wildly out of control, “bonkers” has great merit and is proving increasingly useful, and America’s embrace of it seems natural enough.

There are other colloquialisms from Europe’s anglophone nations, meanwhile, that just don’t travel. Smokers from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland tend to spark confusion and alarm among their counterparts in the Western Hemisphere whenever they’re heard casually dropping the word “fag” to mean “cigarette.” This is a usage that to American ears sounds not only bonkers, but also dodgy and not at all blinding. We’re unlikely to hear it adopted in American speech any time soon thanks to one very obvious problem: In the U.S., that word is already occupied, by a meaning much nastier and more malignant than a cancer-causing lip-mounted furnace for inhaling poisonous gas. As the shortened form of a slur that hardly needs spelling out, “fag” is shot through with homophobic venom, generally understood as a term loaded with malicious intent, aimed all at once at the world’s entire LGBTQ population.  

Here’s the thing, though: The Atlantic trade in words and phrases has always traveled in both directions, and in the U.K., too, “fag” has long been understood to mean “faggot,” and has been meted out by British bigots as incendiary hate speech for decades. Yet this knowledge has in no way inhibited polite British smokers’ willingness to pronounce our own special carcinogenic version of “fag” out loud. Over here, it’s fine to yell across crowded bars things like “Fancy a fag?,” “I’m desperate for a fag!” or simply “Fag?!” (as long as you accompany that one with exaggerated cigarette-puffing hand signals). And all this fag-talk is conducted with not a flicker of qualm or bashfulness over a word that we know, in other contexts, to be totally taboo.

In fact, it goes further than that. Throughout the British Isles, the term “fag” is actively encouraged in all our national cultures, both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic, as friendly, down-to-earth smoking lingo: The word “fag” is synonymous with one of Britain’s best-known tobacco-stained soap-opera characters, Dot Cotton; it’s used openly by the NHS in public-health campaigns, appearing on posters in hundreds of doctors’ offices; the universally loved 1990s Irish-set sitcom Father Ted regularly teased fag-based gags from fag-smoking priests; and in Britain, indignantly stating, “I’m smoking a fag!” has become our official national catchphrase whenever we encounter slovenly or sedentary behavior, thanks to this:

Sharp Intakes of Breath

“People have said ‘fags’ for as long as I’ve known people who smoke,” says Martin, who is from Dublin, works in hospitality, is gay himself, and though he’s now given them up, maintains he was “a belligerent smoker” a few years back. Growing up, he says, “My parents would say ‘fags.’ They wouldn’t say ‘ciggies’ or ‘cigarettes,’ it’d be ‘20 fags,’ or ‘a packet of fags.’” Martin admits, though, that today, it’s not quite the word on everyone’s lips that it was: “An Irish or English person will still say, ‘Can I get a fag off you?’ but people say ‘smoke’ now a bit more — you hear people saying, ‘Can I get a smoke?’ So maybe it’s a generational thing; maybe younger people don’t say ‘fag’ so much.”

But even if the popularity of the term might be on the wane, it’s not because of any confusion with its evil doppelgänger. Among gay smokers, and in gay bars and clubs, I ask Martin, does the homophobic double-meaning issue ever come up? “Absolutely not,” says Martin. Or cause even mild consternation? “No. Because it’s so ingrained in our culture — not even just in gay culture, but in Irish culture, and British culture as well — that if you hear the word ‘fag’ in that context, you would know straight away what it is, and that it’s not a derogatory term. It means somebody wants to go for a cigarette, and you’d never think it means anything other than that.”

In a corner of the world that thrives on puns and innuendo, this absence of ambiguity is a little striking. It’s partly because, thinks Martin, that while the Americanism “faggot” does crop up, it’s not a word you hear that much in Ireland — and when homophobia is expressed, it’s simply not the go-to hate term it is in the U.S. “I don’t think if people were saying ‘faggot faggot faggot’ all the time everybody would just be laughing it off or not batting an eyelid. Because in that case there would definitely be more to it than just somebody using a colloquial term for cigarette.”

Instead, he associates “faggot,” oddly enough, with a much milder form of invective from more innocent times. “I actually remember when we were kids, my mother used to call us ‘little faggots.’ At one time, it would have been said in the same way someone would go, ‘You little brat’ or ‘You little shit’: ‘You little faggot, what are you up to?’ But it was never meant in the way I suppose it would be meant in America.”

“Faggot was the worst slur I knew for gay men when I was growing up, so saying it even now makes me feel a bit awkward,” says Justin Bengry, Lecturer in Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London, who is also co-founder of the history-of-sexuality website Notches. “Even though I never experienced it personally hurled at me, as a Canadian, popular culture and media trained me to know that it was the gay N-word.”

Overheard in a bar back home, says Bengry, the word “fag” would have zero associations with cigarettes and would only ever be associated with “faggot.” While most likely to be used in a derogatory way, he says “fag” might also take on a less antagonistic inflection when used among some members of the gay community, where it could ­­also be “descriptive of a kind of effete or camp homosexuality,” though in both senses, he says, “it’s starting to feel a bit dated and has never been reclaimed in the way that ‘queer’ has.”

“I can remember going to the mall with a good friend in the late 1990s,” says Bengry, “to look at a shirt with her, and discussing playfully whether the shirt was ‘too faggy.’ And it was. It really was. It was a black buttoned rayon shirt with a leopard-print collar. It felt to me at the time like the definition of 1990s ‘faggy.’”

Meat-Headed Insult

Oddly enough, while they’ve ended up with very different meanings, the words “fag” (signifying “I’m a smoker”) and “fag” (meaning “I’m a bigot”) have very similar origins. The tobacco version is an abbreviation of “fag end,” which is first recorded in the early 1700s to mean the raggedy tails of a piece of rope; this in turn was derived from the phrase “butt end,” which was in use from at least the 1590s and could refer to the last part or remnants of just about anything. Shakespeare used it (of course he did) in Richard III, where he has the ambitious Richard pour scorn on his mother’s declared wish that he should be an obedient and meek duke: “That is the butt end of a mother’s blessing.”

In its earliest usage in the late 1600s, meanwhile, “faggot” simply meant a bundle of sticks bound together, often used for kindling in fires. This has led to some speculation that its pejorative meaning grew from the burning of homosexuals as heretics, along with witches. While this horrific punishment was enforced in parts of Europe at various stages between the 12th and mid-18th centuries, the Chambers Dictionary of Slang considers this etymology “somewhat fanciful,” noting instead that from the 18th century in England, “faggot” was in use as a general term of abuse, usually aimed at women or children.

“I expect that meaning would have been taken by early colonists to the U.S.,” says Bengry, “transported with anglophone people to North America.” So, when it was first noted in reference to homosexuals much later, around the 1910s, “It wouldn’t have just grown out of nothing in the United States; it would likewise have already had some of those negative associations with women — possibly of womanly or effeminate [characteristics].”

It was by the 1960s that its use as a pernicious term of anti-homosexual abuse became more common, says Bengry, citing Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English as his source. “This was also a period of the so-called ‘double life,’” says Bengry. “Queer people often had to live two lives at the same time. They might have their friends, their family, their spouse, their kids — and then they’d have another separate gay life. They would feel compelled to live two lives; few would be ‘out’ in any way familiar to us today.”

Bengry also points out that the slur’s mid-century prevalence would have coincided with the so-called Lavender Scare of the 1950s — a witch-hunt targeting homosexual government employees that ran in concert with the McCarthyite persecutions of left-leaning people in U.S. public life. The harassment culminated in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s signing of the notorious Executive Order 10450, which barred “sex perverts” from working in federal government and resulted in thousands of staff losing their jobs and being forcibly outed as gay before an intolerant society. (Parts of this mandate stayed in effect until Bill Clinton fully dismantled it in 1998.)

While it’s unclear exactly when the newly weaponized sense of “faggot” made its way back across the Atlantic to join more traditionally British pejoratives such as “poofter” and “nancy,” Bengry points to a note in Partridge that suggests that by 1977 it was “now not uncommon in West London.”

Which is something I can attest to: When I was attending a West London junior school a decade or so after that, there was a boy in my year who went by the name of Faggot. He didn’t seem to mind this in the slightest, and though this seems incredible now, neither did our teachers. Even at the age of eight or nine, I can remember we were all dimly aware of what his name signified in grown-up world, and that this was a not-nice word to say. But we also knew that the reason everyone called him it really wasn’t so bad — and it might shed a bit of light on why “fag” gets to be used both innocently and vindictively in British and Irish English, without any of us having to tear our brains in half.

You see, Faggot, who was of Irish descent, was actually called Brian Fagan, a name which bore a passing resemblance to a product being heavily advertised at the time: Brains Faggots. Because for most of the 20th century there had existed another, more established definition of “faggot” lodged in the British imagination: For our grandparents, a faggot is first and foremost a type of Welsh-English haggis, made with pork liver, spices and sauce, which is traditional fare in the west of England and South Wales (it’s kind of disgusting). So at school, Faggot wasn’t a victim of hate-speech at all; he was simply named after a meatball.

Here is the clumped offal in question, in a TV commercial from 1981. Scandalously, from our point-of-view, it’s proof that the makers of Brain’s Faggots were completely aware that their dish’s name had a shady second meaning — and that they were confident it was a joke the whole nation would be in on:

I strongly urge you to pause here and watch the above video, a truly extraordinary “what the fuck” moment in British advertising history. There’s something deeply problematic about the concept here: An officer of the law, supposed protector of citizens’ rights, revels in derision directed at the very notion of homosexuality — his uncontrolled laughter reveals just how far outside accepted social norms it was to be queer in Britain during the 1980s. But the ad also shows that, at least back then, the word simply couldn’t have had the same power to shock in the U.K. as it did in the States; if it had carried the same voltage, they could have never kept it on their packaging.

The company’s Kingswood Faggot Factory (yep, a former business address) in Bristol closed in 2003; its increasingly poorly named product had been made in the city since the 1930s. Incredibly, though, it turns out the brand (if not the original Brain’s frozen foods company) has survived, and is still being sold in U.K. grocery stores in 2019.

So, in the same way that calling someone a “pussy” can never arouse the full, visceral punch of the C-word because it’s also the cutesy name for a cat, it’s possible that faggot’s prior existence as a gross, soggy dinner in the U.K. blunted its extreme edge of menace when the Americanism began taking root in the 1970s. Perhaps in the British Isles, it’s never quite shaken off that whiff of gravy.

Homophones and Homophobes

None of this is to say that the homophobic use of faggot isn’t verboten or taken seriously in the U.K. or Ireland. These days, it’s really very far from being okay. In 2005, for example, a British Member of Parliament was accused of calling another politician a faggot during a brawl outside the House of Commons chamber — when the story hit the newspapers, he strenuously denied this, claiming he used a term related to the non-pejorative use of “fag” in the U.K. private-school system (this, by the way, is yet another meaning of “fag” that’s peculiar to the British, and one that’s way too upper-class and niche to be worth exploring in detail here; it basically translates as “menial servant,” but as Justin Bengry points out, it’s not without its homoerotic overtones).

Last Christmas in Ireland, radio DJ Eoghan McDermott called for the lyrics to The Pogues’ classic seasonal song “Fairytale of New York” (which features Kirsty MacColl singing “you cheap lousy faggot…” in the second verse) to be censored, a campaign that gained a fair amount of traction online. The sense of outrage didn’t quite ring true for most in Ireland, though, including many members of the gay community. That’s because in 1988 when the song came out, says Martin, “The offensiveness of ‘faggot’ in that sense had been exported here from America and there were other terms that were used here a lot more, that would have been more vicious. It does show that there was a different meaning to the word in wider culture at one stage. Shane MacGowan’s [the songwriter] mother probably called him a little faggot when he was a kid, too.”

Nevertheless, he still sees it as a harsh, aggressive word. “Some words just have more of a clout to them when they land,” says Martin, “particularly if they’re said with force.” And even on this side of the Atlantic, he says, “I couldn’t see anybody reclaiming it. I suppose it’s like the F-word; it just has horrible associations. It would be very difficult to celebrate the word.”

Whatever else it is in the U.K., says Justin Bengry, it remains “painfully pejorative for many, and some people have been viciously assaulted physically while having that word hurled at them.” “I was reminded of this just today,” he adds, “seeing on Facebook a friend retelling an incident that happened to him here in London, in which someone threw food at him from a moving car shouting ‘faggot’ at him. So, unfortunately, it remains all too real.”

“Two nations divided by a common language” is the old standby for laughing off U.S. and British cultural difference and you can really see that fault line running right through the word “fag.” But there is one way we can all bridge that particular gap.

Encapsulating the full dichotomy of understanding we’ve been talking about, below is another genuine commercial that aired on British TV from 1978, starring a major sitcom star of the era, Rodney Bewes.

For Americans, to watch this will be to marvel at the word “faggot” used in its pure, innocent, meatball-only state, just before its new bigoted meaning seeped into Europe from U.S. locker rooms and frat houses and its brand became forever spoiled. Whenever you hear it, this too is the manner in which European anglophone smokers are using the word “fags” when they’re talking about cigarettes. And for anyone from Britain or Ireland, view this spectacularly unfortunate 30-second ad to catch a tiny glimpse of the horror Americans experience when they hear us blithely blurting out how we’re “gasping for a fag,” or would dearly like to “ponce a fag,” or, in the very worst of both worlds, asking politely if we might be able to “bum a fag…”