I thought about that moment last weekend, when my 12-year-old daughter was having a Harry Potter-themed sleepover with a few of her friends. One of the girls was recalling a moment in a Potter book and came up short as she groped for a word. She was looking for ferret, but what came out was faggot. Another girl immediately jumped. “That’s a bad word,” she said. The first girl asked what it meant and after she was told, simply nodded her head at the nastiness of the thing. The girls, in effect, had gang-tackled the word, first by opprobrium, then by indifference—and then they went back to their playing. The slow, inexorable sunset of this most-used and most-loathed gay slur is by no means complete. It still burns brightly and horribly in far too many places and far too many lives, but its day is undeniably passing — a process only hastened by President Obama’s inaugural address, which included an explicit call for the rights of “our gay brothers and sisters” and memorably invoked the lessons of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. How this particular bit of hate speech finally dies will be a lesson both in the way a language and, more important, a culture matures.
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. Epithets fade not just by public censure and growing disuse, but by appropriation. Queer used to pack a terrible punch of its own until gays picked it up and began using it in chants (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”), as a name for an activist group (Queer Nation) and in the “queer studies” programs offered in many college curricula.