Time, “The End of an Epithet: How Hate Speech Dies”

January 25, 2013

Jeffrey Kluger, “The End of an Epithet: How Hate Speech Dies” (Time, Jan. 25, 2013)

The roots of the anti-gay f-word are not what most people think they are. Popular lore has it that suspected homosexuals were once put to death by fire, and that piles of sticks — or “faggots,” in the antiquated term — were used as kindling. The pile-of-sticks definition is correct, but everything else appears not to be. “There’s no historical evidence that this is how and why it originated,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the website Vocabulary.com. “Its first recorded use was in the early 20th century, when it was applied to women. As with words like queen, it then became an epithet for gay men.”

But there’s value even in the etymological misconception. Gay people may never have been put to the torch, but the widespread belief that they were serves to sensitize people to the very real bigotry—and often very real danger—they’ve faced over the centuries. “Even if it has no historical truth it has a different kind of truth as a lesson,” Zimmer says.

Read the rest here.

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