A. The Charge. The Gay Slang Dictionary offers this definition for the word faggot: “A male homosexual, a term applied to gays during the Inquisition when they were burned along with witches.”
In the Middle Ages sodomy was punished by the death penalty, generally through burning at the stake. The word faggot commemorates this harsh practice.
B. Background. One of the most persistent myths that have gained a foothold in the GLBT movement is the belief that "faggot" derives from the basic meaning of "bundle of sticks used to light a fire," with the historical commentary that when witches were burned at the stake, "only presumed male homosexuals were considered low enough to help kindle the fires."
The English word has in fact three forms: faggot, attested by the Oxford English Dictionary from circa 1300; fadge, attested from 1588; and faggald, which the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue first records from 1375. The first and second forms have the additional meaning "fat, slovenly woman" which according to the English Dialect Dictionary survived into the nineteenth century in the folk speech of England.
The homosexual sense of the term, unknown in England itself, appears for the first time in America in a vocabulary of criminal slang printed in Portland, Oregon in 1914, with the example "All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight." The apocopated (clipped) form fag then arose by virtue of the tendency of American colloquial speech to create words of one syllable; the first quotation is from the book by Nels Anderson, The Hobo (1923): "Fairies or Fags are men or boys who exploit sex for profit." The short form thus also has no connection with British fag as attested from the nineteenth century (for example, in the novel Tom Brown's Schooldays) in the sense of "public school boy who performs menial tasks for an upperclassman."
In American slang faggot/fag usurped the semantic role of bugger in British usage, with its connotations of extreme hostility and contempt bordering on death wishes. In more recent decades it has become the term of abuse par excellence in the mouths of heterosexuals, often just as an insult aimed at another male's alleged want of masculinity or courage, rather than implying a sexual role or orientation.
The ultimate origin of the word is a Germanic term represented by the Norwegian dialect words fagg, "bundle, heap," alongside bagge, "obese, clumsy creature" (chiefly of animals). From the latter are derived such Romance words as French bagasse and ltalian bagascia, "prostitute," whence the parallel derivative bagascione whose meaning matches that of American English faggot/fag, while Catalan bagassejar signifies "to faggot; to frequent the company of loose women."
In the English common law both witchcraft and buggery were punishable by hanging, not burning. Moreover, in the reign of the homosexual monarch James I the execution of heretics came to an end, so that by the time American English gave the word its new meaning there cannot have been in the popular mind even the faintest remnant of the complex of ideas credited to the term in the contemporary myth. It is purely and simply an Americanism of the twentieth century.
Quite unrelated is the current usage in Britain of the word faggot to describe a kind of meatball.
C. Response. Given the fact that the term faggot cannot refer to burning at the stake, why does the myth continue to enjoy popularity in the gay movement? On the conscious level it serves as a device with which to attack the medieval church, by extension Christianity in toto, and finally all authority. There are better ways to do these things, if need be. On another level, it may linger as a "myth of origins," a kind of collective masochistic ritual that willingly identifies the homosexual as victim.
It should be evident that the word faggot and the ideas that have been mistakenly associated with it serve no useful function; the sooner both are abandoned, the better.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Warren Johansson, "The Etymology of the Word Faggot," Gay Books Bulletin, 6 (1981), 16-18, 33.