I’ve had this comic idea for a while, since before I even moved to the city, when I first heard a co worker ask for a “square”. This has always been an odd phrase to me, mostly because growing up I thought of a “square” with reference to a carpenter’s square. Then talking to my friend the other day she mentioned that it never made sense that they called a carpenter’s square a “square” rather it should be a triangle or an “L”(1). Which reminded me of the original question: why is it called a square?
These are carpenter’s squares, though the first one should be called a triangle. It is basic geometry.
When I decided to look into the origin of “square” with reference to “cigarette” I got more than I anticipated.
The original, the square, I read from Urban Dictionary “The box that cigarettes come in ressembles a square. Hence the name, “square” for a cigarette.” (Source: Urban Dictionary – smoke a square) however I was cirious as to how many commonly recognised names are there for smokes?
This list does a decent job covering street etymologies but it reminded me of one slang that’s still rather common, at least in Northern England, “fag” with regard to a cigarette. For my American readers, you can probably imagine my shock hearing “fag” being used so causally in conversation when I went over to the UK, particularly in front of my fellow American housemate who was a gay man. I got curious as to how “fag” came to mean both “cigarette” or a gay man, depending on who you asked, and the answer is disturbing.
late 13c., “bundle of twigs bound up,” also fagald, faggald, from Old French fagot “bundle of sticks” (13c.), of uncertain origin, probably from Italian fagotto “bundle of sticks,” diminutive of Vulgar Latin *facus, from Latin fascis “bundle of wood” (see fasces).
Especially used for burning heretics (emblematic of this from 1550s), so that phrase fire and faggot was used to indicate “punishment of a heretic.” Heretics who recanted were required to wear an embroidered figure of a faggot on the sleeve as an emblem and reminder of what they deserved.
(source: etymology online – faggot n1)
I’m sure you can see the general direction this is headed, or at least I thought I knew where this was going. I was told whilst over there that faggot began to be used to describe someone who was publicly executed at the stake however a bit of reading shines an interesting new light on the sad history of the slang word.
The explanation that male homosexuals were called faggots because they were burned at the stake as punishment is an etymological urban legend. Burning sometimes was a punishment meted out to homosexuals in Christian Europe (on the suggestion of the Biblical fate of Sodom and Gomorrah), but in England, where parliament had made homosexuality a capital offense in 1533, hanging was the method prescribed. Use of faggot in connection with public executions had long been obscure English historical trivia by the time the word began to be used for “male homosexual” in 20th century American slang, whereas the contemptuous slang word for “woman” (in common with the other possible sources or influences listed here) was in active use early 20c., by D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, among others.
(Source:etymology online – faggot n2)
The actual origin of the term faggot/fag with reference to a gay man came into use in the early 20 century when it was used to contemptuously refer to women (a faggot being something awkward which has to be carried).
However to say that the usage of the word “faggot” hasn’t changed since I was a kid, getting bullied being called shit like “faggot” and “gay”, would be a sad disservice to the nature of linguistics. In our “pop-pc culture” there’s an insistent need to get very triggered over anything slightly offensive which I get, we live in a culture that for a very long time did not think about intention or cultivate value in being thoughtful with how we express ourselves not just for efficiency purposes but also to raise collective emotional intelligence.
What I get hung up on is how reluctant people are to accept that the process of reclamation is uncomfortable at first and that requires us to FUCKING TALK ABOUT IT instead of this popular notion to talk louder or to “agree to disagree” and avoid any real discussion for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. For example, I take issue with people who are trying to make claims about curvy being a derogatory term for “fat”.
(Source: Dictionary.com – curvy)
Literally from the dictionary, defines an object as having curves. It doesn’t make a statement about size until it’s assigned that definition and then why is “big” considered bad? It’s like we live in a fucking Grimm Faerie tale where big = bad = wolf therefore anything big or wolf like (or uncanny(2)) and everyone is both the wolf and little red riding hood depending on who you ask and more importantly this pop-pc culture seems to be label obsessed, which I believe partly if not wholly reinforces this “border war” on what words are acceptable and who can use these certain words which misses the entire point of raising collective emotional intelligence: learning to listen for intention rather than learning to hear keywords.
Next time someone calls you a faggot or says you have a fat ass, try and stop your self before getting triggered and think: what was their intention? Now if their intention was to hurt your feelings, HELL YEA GO FUCKING APE SHIT ON THEM…or like not, but maybe if they’re a decent human being and you’re feeling brave have a conversation with them about that phrase and maybe after a little talking you two may teach each other something. Cheesis knows there’s already enough free floating confusion and anger out there.
Take care of yourselves and talk to one another, folks. We’re all in this together.
Tune in Monday for a very high spirited book review of Jim Crace’s “The Pesthouse”.
- I’m glad they don’t call the carpenter’s square an “L” otherwise this joke would fall apart because I’m not cool enough to be rolling around with pre-rolled Ls, that’s like next level.
- I’m referring to the uncanny as a trope in Gothic Literature where the object of anxiety and fear is manifested in a monster which is frequently somewhere between human and beast (think Dracula being very animistic, think all were-wolf stories, think Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, think.) as a representation that there are things that “appear human” but are not quite actually human.