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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

'To fag'

'To fag' - we think we know what the slang term means; to serve an older boy, in the dodgy setting of a British Public School. But there was another use; an article in the Arbroath Herald, 4 Oct 1918, reads as follows:

After the band had bestowed its benediction in the strains of "Return to Serbia," the writer was fortunate enough to "fag" an interpreter, through whom he sought out the native Scoutmaster.

This seems to show 'fag' being used as a verb, meaning 'get hold of'. In The Grey Brigade ( a trench - actually camp - magazine of a group of London-based territorial regiments) on 26 June 1915 we find:

What is to be done with the inveterate cigarette obtainer - the man who always has a box of 50 in his kit-bag but none in his case? He is to be found in all companies. "Got a fag, old man?" is the favourite opening. The only way of escape, it seems to me, is to form an S.F.C.O.U.F. - Society For Choking Off Undesirable Faggers.

So, does 'to fag' come from the word 'fag' for cigarette, and mean originally 'try to get a fag', and from this 'try to get something for nothing', and then to 'manage to get something'?

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