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Is the Word Faggot Still Offensive?

The word "faggot" keeps popping up in the news, and each time it's taken just as poorly as the time before. Alec Baldwin used it derogatorily towards a photographer last year. John Lacy who was playing Big Daddy in a California production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was fired after an audience member screamed the slur at the stage during a performance and the actor jumped off the stage and got physical. And then earlier this month, actor Jonah Hill was caught on camera yelling at a paparazzo to "suck my d*ck, you faggot."

The last one surprised many as Hill is very open on his views of gay rights; he has been overtly supportive of the LGBT community.

Of course, after the incident, Hill went on a media blitz apologizing to everyone and their mom about how awful he felt, and he really didn't mean it, and he hoped that everyone would forgive him and go see his new movie 22 Jump Street.

Regardless of how sorry he is that it happened, or that he got caught, the incident raises a few questions. Firstly, where does this word even come from and why is it so offensive?

And, wait, is it still offensive?

Faggot really sounds nasty. As opposed to calling someone gay, which can still be taken poorly, faggot is akin to calling a Jewish person a kike or a black person the "N" word, which I won't even write. When someone who is not of the same background uses the word, it's with a distinct purpose - to be a jerk. But where did it come from?

You may have heard the British use the word "fag" to mean cigarette, and if you heard that when you were 10 years old you probably got a nice giggle on. But really the term comes from a bundle of firewood. According to certain sources, the term may or may not have gotten its negative connotation from the old women who used to gather bundles of sticks for a living. This occupation wasn't exactly lauded, and somehow comparing someone to a poor old lady who could only find work picking up sticks became an insult. "Ha ha you're poor and old and you pick up sticks!" (And some people really love the British sense of humor).

Another thought on the word is that the shorthand version, "fag," referred to the act of "fagging," which was done by young private school boys in England. Fagging meant they completed "duties" for their older peers. These duties ranged from sweeping the floor to performing sexual acts, two wildly different types of favors. The latter may have attributed to the term ending up a homosexual slur.

A third possibility I've come across is that homosexual men were burned at the stake just like sticks, AKA fags.

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Could birds, especially ones from San Francisco, be to blame for the name?
Could birds, especially ones from San Francisco, be to blame for the name?
Photo by Margaret Downing

A further possible explanation for the word comes from the Yiddish word "fagela," which literally translates into "little bird." But it is widely known in the culture to be an insult, implying an effeminate male.

Regardless of the word's etymology, is it still considered insulting? Oftentimes there are words once used as derogatory labels that are adopted by the group they are aimed at insulting in a way that is empowering. Think about the word queer and how it was so offensive for a long time. Now you find that word being used favorably in the LGBT community; there are Queer Studies and Queer Theory taught in colleges.

Another example is the Italian cohort's use of the word Guido. I recall when that was a pretty rude description of someone. Enter the dudes from Jersey Shore; they have officially taken that word back with a sense of pride.

Words often change course as society changes. Take the word retard. Despite its current negative connotation, there was a time when the advocacy group fighting for people with Down Syndrome called themselves The Association for Retarded Citizens. But after the term became pejorative and a way to call someone dumb or slow, the group changed its name. Connotions change meaning over time.

Taking all of this into consideration, is faggot still a slight? I reached out to social media to see what others thought and by and large the majority of those that answered me said yes.

Of those that reached back to my inquiry, I was told that it's OK for homosexuals to use the word among themselves, but when someone outside of their group uses it, it's wrong. This is pretty common among in-groups -- the "N" word being a good example. I too feel like I can call someone a Jew in a way that might seem jarring to someone that's not one, but if a non-Jewish person did the same, it would be hateful. Maybe that's hypocritical, but it's true.

A few other people told me that they had used it themselves at various times in their lives and they were now embarrassed that they ever did. I know that as a child I used the word gay more times than I can count, and I used it as an insult. If I really understood the weight of what I was saying, I doubt, but I did know that I was trying to be mean. When I eventually found out that gay's detonated definition is "to be merry," I was blown away. What's so bad about being happy?

Some of the respondents to my question said that they were surprised the word was making a comeback and they hadn't heard it in a while. Others insisted that regardless of the word, it is the intent of the user that makes a word hateful.

So, was Jonah Hill's intent hateful? I think so. Does he deserve to be lambasted for it? Probably. Will he ever say that again? Oh, hell no.

Whether or not you find this word offensive, somebody does. Maybe it's time for a new insult - because I'm not saying we don't need insults - but an insult that is aimed at a specific group is not OK.

Can we just stick with the word asswipe? Save for the toilet paper industry, I can't imagine any set of people finding fault in this one.


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