June 16, 2004

Mr. Brain's Faggots

I've visited the U.K. more than a few times, and read many British novels, memoirs, biographies, histories and news articles. But every once in a while, something surprises me.

There's a discussion of the varied history of the word faggot on the two sides of the Atlantic here; the "meatball" meaning is mentioned but not explained. Geoff Pullum suggested in email that the shared meaning is something like "bundle of small pieces of X", where X is meat in the case of meatballs. The OED's sense 3.a. is "A bundle or bunch in general, e.g. of rushes, herbs, etc.", and 3.b. is "A 'bundle', collection (of things not forming any genuine unity)". But all of the examples involve either thin stick-like things (herbs, bones, etc.) or completely abstract things ("faggot of compliments", "faggot of utter improbabilities").

The OED's sense 6.a. is "term of abuse or contempt applied to a woman", with citation back to 1591, and sense 6.b. "(male) homosexual slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.)", with citations from 1914, is felt to be derived from that.

The OED gives the "meatball" meaning as sense 5., with the definition given only as reference to this quote (as a result of which I missed it the first time I read the entry!):

1851 MAYHEW Lond. Labour II. 227 He..made his supper..on 'fagots'. This preparation..is a sort of cake, roll or ball..made of chopped liver and lights, mixed with gravy, and wrapped in pieces of pig's caul.

It seems to be assumed that 6.a. comes from some concept like "bag of bones" or "bundle of sticks" -- though "meatball" is also a commonplace insult...

[via Wordlab]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 16, 2004 09:43 PM