April 27, 2011

Where "That Word"* Comes From

One of the occupational hazards of my line of work is digging through old(ish) court cases and running into antiquated language. Stuff that makes me scratch me head and run for a dictionary. Sometimes, it’s a word or phrase that I’ve never seen before. Other times, it’s a word that’s so out of step with its modern usage that I stumble over it and then go looking for the dictionary. Had the later happen to me today.

For research on an issue that’s new to me, I wound my way to a 1955 Supreme Court case called Bell v. United States. Written by Justice Frankfurter, it’s a swift three pages (in Westlaw format, at any rate), displaying a brevity rarely seen in modern Court opinions (the dissent, likewise, is only four paragraphs long). At any rate, near the end of the opinion, Frankfurter writes (emphasis mine):
When Congress has the will it has no difficulty in expressing it-when it has the will, that is, of defining what it desires to make the unit of prosecution and, more particularly, to make each stick in a faggot a single criminal unit. When Congress leaves to the Judiciary the task of imputing to Congress an undeclared will, the ambiguity should be resolved in favor of lenity.
Of course, “faggot” has an etymology aside from its modern use as a homophobic slur. Still, it’s a bit of a “whuh?” moment when you see it in a Supreme Court opinion. So, I did what I always do: I went to a dictionary.

Not any dictionary, of course, but Black’s Law Dictionary. I am a lawyer, after all. Oddly, the definition in my version (Sixth Edition), doesn’t seem to have much relevance to its use in Bell:
A badge worn in early times by persons who had recanted and abjured what was then adjudged to be heresy, as an emblem of what they had merited.
I can’t quite tell whether that definition applies to the heretic or the heretic who get better. Either way, it doesn’t have fuck all to do with the issue in Bell. Let’s try a “real” dictionary then, the Oxford English Dictionary. And speaking of heretics:

a. With special reference to the practice of burning heretics alive, esp. in phrase fire and faggot; to fry a faggot , to be burnt alive; also, to bear a faggot , to carry a faggot , as those did who renounced heresy. Hence fig. the punishment itself.

b. The embroidered figure of a faggot, which heretics who had recanted were obliged to wear on their sleeve, as an emblem of what they had merited.
All right, that clears up the confusion from Black’s, but it still doesn’t really make sense in the context of the case. Of course, that’s the second definition in OED. As for the first:
1. A bundle of sticks, twigs, or small branches of trees bound together.
Ah, that makes more sense. But how did we get from heretics and bundles of sticks to a homophobic slur? Nobody is really sure (South Park has its version), although this theory seems plausible to me (more at Wikipedia). What is clear is that “fag” as a slur is an American phenomenon, although one that’s spreading to other English-speaking countries.  Lovely.

See what kinds of interesting tidbits you learn reading old court cases?

* One of them, anyway.

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