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Taboo Language

Sep 8, 2010

The tweet that sank Stephanie Rice

Piers Kelly writes: Twitter is a rare and dangerous creature. Nobody’s quite sure what it does, but we all know that it bites if you antagonise it. It mauled Miranda Devin

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Piers Kelly writes:

Twitter is a rare and dangerous creature. Nobody’s quite sure what it does, but we all know that it bites if you antagonise it. It mauled Miranda Devine and Marieke Hardy, and it knocked Catherine Deveney clean off her perch at The Age. Now it’s Stephanie Rice’s turn to get twitslapped. When the Wallabies defeated the Springboks on the weekend, she exultantly tweeted:

Suck on that faggots

This has come back to bite her on her athletic arse. Rice has now forfeited her enviable role as the human mascot for Jaguar.

Picture 2

The word ‘faggot’, as a derogatory term for a male homosexual, is on a kind of semantic threshold where it’s meaning [rogue apostrophe! Thanks: Alan Walker] can be extended as a general insult aimed at any man. In other words, one of the embodied senses of ‘faggot’ as a ‘disreputable man worthy of scorn’ is given more prominence in the extended usage. This is clearly how Stephanie Rice applied it. So why did it offend?

Probably because ‘faggot’ is still such a malicious insult that only a masterful user can make it funny or risqué. Call a homophobic man a faggot and you risk a violent response. Call a non-homophobic or gay man a faggot and you signal a moral objection to their very existence. The offence is multidimensional. Even merely mentioning the word, as opposed to actually using it, can get you into trouble as Isaiah Washington of Grey’s Anatomy discovered. This doesn’t mean that ‘faggot’ is always offensive to everyone all of the time. David Sedaris has applied it with great humour, and I never get tired of reading The Onion’s self-explanatory opinion piece: ‘Let Us Identify The Faggots And Then Inform Them Of Their Status’. It’s hardly likely that Rice is homophobic and I wouldn’t be surprised if she used ‘faggot’ amongst her friends in its emergent sense, without bigotry, as a general male-directed insult. But within the media ecology at large, Twitter is an ambiguous beastie that resists domestication. At no point can you be certain of your audience and of the setting in which they will read your remarks. Divorced of a stable context, a judgment about whether Stephanie Rice’s tweet was offensive is neither here nor there.

Folk etymologists have claimed that ‘faggot’ (homosexual) is a kind of metonym of ‘faggot’ (bundle of sticks), and that the association harks back to a time when homosexuals were burnt at the stake along with heretics.

Like all good stories this is the very height of bollocks, but there is perhaps a dim relationship between the two words. The ‘bundle of sticks’ meaning comes to English via the equivalent French word fagot which may in turn have come from Italian faggotto. This is where the trail goes cold but there is a plausible connection to the Latin fascis for ‘bundle of wood’ from whence we also get fascism (via Italian fascio ‘bundle’, referencing the Roman symbol of the fasces, a bundle of rods with a protruding axe representing power). From the late 16th century, ‘faggot’ came to be used as a term of contempt for a woman and the OED has examples of this sense right up to 1969.  How did this meaning emerge? Douglas Harper speculates that it was a metaphorical extension. Like ‘baggage’ the contemptible woman is ‘something awkward that has to be carried’.

In the early 20th century there are examples of ‘faggot’ in the sense of an effeminate or homosexual man. So it seems likely that calling a man a ‘faggot’ was to accuse him of displaying negatively evaluated female traits. Much like rugby players who fail to overcome their opponents and thus lose the esteem of an international swimming champion. Indeed, must we carry these effeminate South Africans like so much awkward baggage?, Stephanie seems to ask. Or should we, rather, invite them to sup in humiliation upon our righteous victory?

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33 comments

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33 thoughts on “The tweet that sank Stephanie Rice

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  5. Leith Daniel

    What fascinated me with the whole episode is that the word appears to be a swear word. On Today, they didn’t even repeat the phrase.

    On Sunrise, they printed it on screen, but the word was spelt “f******” and when Mel was reading it out, she made a big deal of pausing and then moving on.

    When did the word become taboo? Would it have been censored like it was even 6 months ago?

  6. Fran Barlow

    Cmagree above covered the ground I would have very well. Kudos!

    For the record, the term “pussy” also clearly trades on the various interations of misogyny, so although it’s less controversial, I’d say the same class of objections would apply.

    Defining the ostensible feminine as a derogatory other surely cannot stand any more than can references to ostensible ethnicity in derogatory and/or patronising

  7. Wise Old Man

    Anyway, it matters zilch whether she likes gays or not. She’s entitled to use that slang as she chooses. The fact others might not like it, is simply something she has to come to terms with. I mean though really for a $100K JAG, I think almost anyone would say they like gays.

  8. scmcnt

    In support of mikeb’s proposition – think about the Australian use of bastard, bugger (you bugger and you bastard are now terms of endearment!) and bitch (as in I am jealous of you, NOT you are a bitch) – even ‘let’s get down to the nitty gritty’. Screw, up yours, spunky …. all of these have been obscenities of the highest order but are used differently now – oh and bludger now means a person who is lazy, not a person who ‘lives off the immoral earnings of women’ ie prostitutes. Language is dynamic not static.

    I have not said that Stephie was ok to have used that word – in fact I was shocked and disappointed. But somehow or other we have started using words in everyday language all day everyday that are actually insults and we do not give it a second thought. Except of course I would never call an actual bastard a bastard (especially as the parents are the illegitimate one and the child had not choice int he matter).

    Do we know Stephie frequently uses the word faggot? – it IS ridiculous to take a ‘snapshot’ of a person ie look at a single moment in time, and then think you know all about them – it ain’t that simple.

    Do you think that people who still say they have had a spaz attack or someone is a spazoid has something against people with spasticity? They don’t even know what the words actually mean.

    Two more points –

    And lastly – words are used in an ’emergent sense’ all of the time and the issue is not whether they CAN BE, but whether or not they ARE. A simple search on Twitter, as I suggested above, will show that the word faggot is used in a lot more senses than its original meaning, exactly as mikeb has stated (while it is still intended as an insult) as WELL as its original meaning as a vilification.

  9. Wise Old Man

    And she could have said anything. Nothing wrong with it. Gays even call themselves that in jest. It’s all a beat up in the name of political correctness. I don’t doubt others might also think she is an unpleasant or contemptible woman. i.e. a faggot. The use of the term and the other definitions, makes a contradiction of the argument. Who said gays should have ownership of the word faggot ? They don’t! so get over it.

  10. mikeb

    Victor_V.

    Not sure how old you are but it seems to have come into the common venacular amongst teens/20 somethings. There are a hell of a lot of homophobes around if that forms the definition. It will probably go out of fashion at some point and they’ll use other sort of term. I think “retard” is still used pretty freely & – again – I’m pretty sure it’s not meant to denegrate disabled people. It’s all very insensitive I know – but that’s the way it is.

  11. Victor_V

    mikeb – how exactly is it ridiculous to label people who frequently use accusations of homosexuality “all the time in a derogatory way” homophobic? Seems like a textbook case to me.

  12. Victor_V

    I don’t consider it a correct proposition that the word can be used “in it’s emergent sense, without bigotry.” Nor, mikeb, do I think the words “gay” or “nigger” can be used in such a sense.
    No matter how emergent, these words still ubiquitously carry their original meaning. Using them to mean “generally bad” is just a more insidious way to marginalize people in those categories. Piers your suggestion that there is “nothing inherent” in the word that makes it spiteful can only be true to the extent that you can also claim that all words are sounds with no inherent meaning (i.e. to an extent that renders the entire discussion pointless.) There is nothing “inherently spiteful” about ANY word in that sense, but that doesn’t mean spiteful words don’t exist or aren’t, navel-gazing excursions into etymology notwithstanding.

  13. Ruby

    @wamut Posted September 8, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. Using synonyms for ‘gay’ in a derogatory way perpetuates homophobic attitudes in society, regardless of one’s intention when they say it (as a seemingly ‘harmless’ insult, a joke, or actually being homophobic). I don’t think Stephanie Rice intended to offend anyone by her comment and probably just didn’t think it through. I feel a bit sorry for her, however I do have a big problem with comments like hers being a relatively normal thing to say among a lot of Australians. Her comment was a product of this norm, though she is a role model to some people so should be setting a better example. Young Australians tend to grow up in an environment where the underlying notion that being gay is something ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’, and that men who are not ‘macho’ and masculine should be subject to ridicule, which I believe has a lot to do with the incredibly high suicide rate for young gay men (6 times more than straight men).

  14. mikeb

    btw – my kids also occasionally use the word “nigger” between themselves in a friendly way (not derogatory). If in America they would get beaten down pretty damn quick because that word is more off limits for whites than any other.

  15. mikeb

    No doubt SR used it as an offensive term but does it mean she is homophobic? I say judge on actions & not words. If her gay friends have come out in support then i say give her the benefit of the doubt. My kids (& probably all of their contemporaries) use that term (as well as “gay”) all the time in a derogatory way. I don’t particularly like it but labelling them as homophobic is ridiculous. That being said anyone silly (or drunk enough) to broadcast it over twitter, facebook, etc is taking a BIG risk. There are lots of people out there who like to make a mountain over a mole hill. Young people (& many older people) unfortunately lack an awareness of consequences.

  16. Wise Old Man

    Actually she said nothing wrong. Those do gooders should get a life.

    re; Stephanie Rice’s Remarks after Wallabies Victory over South Africa

    SUCK ON THAT, FAGGOT = A Retort toward a stupid, clumsy, or dull person or persons. Perfectly described by Stephanie about the SA Rugby Team getting beaten. This is a valid definition of her use of slang. Nothing wrong with it at all. Its akin to saying, something like “take that you fools !” with more colourful language and the exuberance of a Grand Champion.

    PROOF BELOW !

    FAGGOT
    A faggot is a kind of meatball. Faggots are a traditional dish in the UK,[1][2] especially the Midlands of England.[3][4][5] It is made from meat off-cuts and offal, especially pork.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faggot_(food)

    MEATBALL

    2. Slang A stupid, clumsy, or dull person.
    2. US and Canadian slang a stupid or boring person
    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/meatball

    SUCK ON THAT
    http://onlineslangdictionary.com/definition+of/suck+on+that

    a retort.

    Hence my finding that;

    SUCK ON THAT, FAGGOT = A Retort toward a stupid, clumsy, or dull person or persons. Perfectly described by Stephanie about the SA Rugby Team getting beaten. This is a valid definition of her use of slang. Nothing wrong with it at all. Its akin to saying, something like “take that you fools !” with more colourful language and the exuberance of a Grand Champion.

  17. scmcnt

    mmm – this is such a vexing question – how do I find out how the term faggot is used these days – is it used exclusively to vilify gay people? does it have another meaning? hmmm what to do, what to do – where do I find an example of the use of language in a current and real form with easy searching hmmm what to do what to do – if ONLY there was something that recorded peoples brief comments such as the way people send texts on their mobiles …. (yes I did do a search and there were some very interesting results – but don’t do it yourself unless you are prepared to see the disappointing ones as well ie some of the tweets would be illegal if in Australia I think) – and yes the irony is not lost on me either

  18. scmcnt

    mmm and big girl’s blouse – sissie????

  19. RV

    wamut/cmagree: right on.

    Also, fagot probably came straight from fascis. No Italian connection necessary.

  20. pedro

    I’m with cmagree.

    In Australia there is no novel use of the word faggot I am aware of. When used by straight people to comment about other straight males of the species, it ranks in the Top Three, along with B*m-jockey and pillow-biter.

    To elaborate on what Zut Alors says, Steph should probably have called them pussies (as in cat-dog), wusses, losers or girls, and there would not have been the derogatory homosexual association. Bad choice of words.

    Yet another reason not to tweet sh*t.

  21. scmcnt

    Piers Kelly – Firstly – please see Mel Campbell’s comment re evidence of the use of the word fag as doing chores – and I bet nobody tried anything unwelcome with Roald Dahl – he was very very tall as a man so I expect he would have been in his younger days as well.

    I would not expect to see evidence of the use of the words faggot or fag with their original meaning in Print – rather, the place I would expect to see the words used as I suggest are in letters home from the boys, senior or junior. Especially much earlier on – I do not know exactly what period that would be, but would guess it would be before the word faggot had taken on it’s “alternative” meaning ie the boys would have to feel no shame whatsoever otherwise they would not talk about it to Mum and Dad.

    In addition – how do we know the term did not come in to common use just because it was in a fictional book about a particular school?

    And where did we get the slang term fag for a cigarette? From the way it was lit (ie by a twig?)

    ps I only used math rather than maths because it is part of the full phrase, and yes I admit to being influenced to some extent by US tv and movies – I live in the NT and am proud to have done so for more than 4 decades

  22. Roberto Tedesco

    I really couldn’t give a toss about what the poor precious princess thinks, now she has started to lose her sponsors.

    She used the term “faggot” as an insult, and I cannot believe she used it in any other way than “you useless effeminate South Africans” etc. probably whilst stomping around and shouting in a bogan voice. She’s a buffoon who displayed her credentials to everyone via the media. Tough shit, dimwit.

  23. Holden Back

    Nobody has mentioned bassoons yet – fagott in German, fagotto in Italian. Or liver – faggots (and peas) in Yorkshire dialect.

  24. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    The sad thing is that Rice as an individual athlete seems to have failed to recognise that in team sport while there is a winner and a loser you only get a game of the quality that she so enjoyed (‘best ever’) when the loser is bloody superb and team sportsmen revere their opponents.
    Psychology, psychology, psychology is everything.

  25. Piers Kelly

    @wamut/cmagree I agree with you both. The semantic extension probably hasn’t extended very far. There is no question that the word is used with spite to denigrate gay men with a dose of misogyny for good measure. But I would simply say that there is nothing inherent in the word itself that makes it spiteful and it’s always worth paying attention to new uses. I personally wouldn’t want to be in a position to either forgive or excuse Rice since there is no identifiable context for interpreting her statement.

  26. Piers Kelly

    The Engish public school origin of faggot is certainly a possibility but I’d like to see better the evidence. The OED hasn’t identified any printed instance of ‘faggot’ with that meaning, which you’d expect to find if it truly ever existed – there are plenty of public school memoirs and satires to draw from. Instead, ‘fag’, as ‘a junior who performs certain duties for a senior’ is listed as a secondary meaning of fag:’That which causes weariness; hard work, toil, drudgery, fatigue’. The etymology of this is unknown but it’s been linked to ‘flag’ as in ‘his spirits flagged’.
    PS. An earlier version of this post didn’t allow comments. This was a bug, not a policy. The text bulletin version was a bit jumbled which was entirely my fault.

  27. zut alors

    @ scmcnt

    The tradition began at either Eton or Harrow. Interesting that you employ that quaint word ‘math’ – do you hail from North America?

    If Rice had used the word ‘girls’ instead of ‘faggots’ none of this would even be in the public arena for discussion. Therefore, if pure misogynistic terminology had been applied the tweet would’ve passed as socially acceptable. Tell me I’m wrong.

  28. Mel Campbell

    I agree with scmcnt re: the plausibility of this arising from the English public school tradition. Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy also mentions his time as a ‘fag’ at Repton, notably on toilet-seat-warming duty for an older boy.

  29. scmcnt

    I do feel sorry for Rice because I believe the word she used did not have the same meaning to her as it has to the general public – remember sports people are usually extremely competitive in any environment not just their own sport, and I am betting that Rice has watched a loooooooot of competitions in one form or another as a member of a group/crowd and learnt some behaviour from that, right or wrong. Rice did not call an individual who is actually gay a faggot – THAT would have been the vilification in the true sense of the word. Rice directed a term at a group of people who had just lost a game. Or am I missing something?

    I also think that Jaguar, if it really wanted to be politically correct and be shown to be supporting homosexuals rather than just ‘not’ being ‘against’ them, could have used the situation to make a progressive step because rightly or wrongly Australian sports stars are role models.

    Anyway I really got on here to talk about the etymology of the word faggot. This is what I think (and I really must send this in to the ABC at some time) –

    in English Public Schools (read Private Schools) in days gone by (ie before electric heaters, vacuum cleaners and for that matter electricity) the older Boarders had younger Boarders to do chores for them – eg cleaning, serving and cleaning up after meals, and collecting the firewood which were actually bundles of twigs called faggots. The term for the younger boys was actually faggots and what they did was called fagging – all perfectly innocent and to do with household chores. All of this is probably in Tom Brown’s School Days and other books set in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    So, being Borders in English all-boy Public Schools, and lonely for company, some of the older boy’s thoughts sometimes turned to sex, and the young boarders already doing other ‘chores’ for them were in a vulnerable position. You do the math.

  30. cmagree

    This post is way too apologetic for me. On an emotive, surface level, without too much reflection, the Tweet comes across as horribly homophobic and offensive. But it’s also complicit in a sexism so conventional that the author doesn’t even recognise it.

    A gay man is considered hateful because he’s assumed to be effeminate. He is hateful because to be considered conventionally ‘feminine’ is to be unmanly: so-called feminine traits must be abhorred by ‘real’, heterosexual men. Why is this?

    Misogyny in its extreme form assumes that certain human traits and characteristics, which are attributable to both sexes, are actually associated with only one sex, women. These characteristics, vulnerabilities and abilities include feeling and expressing emotion, particularly sadness and grief; feeling compassion; feeling desire for men; vulnerability to losing a contest; vulnerability to weakness; vulnerability to the failings of the body; laziness. In a neat double move, misogyny not only assigns such characteristics to women alone, indeed uses them as definitions of femininity, but then labels them negative.

    Thus, Rice has basically said that the players who lost are not simply vulnerable human beings; they are less than men, even un-men, and therefore dangerously close to being women. Clearly not biologically female, they are supposedly the closest thing: effeminate men, men who display the negative traits associated with women. And if gay equals effeminate, they must be gay men, who are always un-men. (Of course I’m not saying that all gay men are conventionally feminine; it’s the stereotype that’s relevant here.)

    In other words, Rice has managed to denigrate both gays and women, and to hold boys and men to a version of masculinity that is not only impossible but also dangerous and destructive, not to males alone but to the community as a whole.

  31. wamut

    Hmmm… I don’t think the semantic extension has extended very far. I think if you call a straight man a ‘faggot’, you’re basically calling him a-man-who-has-sex-with-other-man-which-is-really-disgusting-because-I’m-homophobic, which isn’t very different at all from calling a gay man a faggot (‘disgusting’ gay-sex qualities still hold).

    Note that ‘faggot’ as an insult is a lot more serious than ‘disreputable man worthy of scorn’. It’s a pretty full-on insult that I think connotes “disgust” much more than “disrepute”.

    I hate the word’s application a generic insult. (Yes, there’s a prescriptivist in all of us). Too right, Stephanie should lose out.

    I don’t think people realise enough that the application of words like ‘faggot’ and ‘gay’ to generic things they don’t like has a constant, niggling negative effect on those of us who are gay. And sadly, probably moreso to those who are struggling to come to terms with being gay.

    On the plus side, I saw the other day that there was an award-winning public service TV ad campaign in America combating the broad use of ‘gay’ as a synonym of ‘bad’, ‘dodgy’.

  32. Holden Back

    Twitter seems to confuse users as to its status as public utterance. Who cares what Rice thinks or does in private? But entering this sort of grey zone shows her to be the inexperienced person she really is.

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