“Have you got a fag, mate?” This innocent request can be startling to an American used to the derogatory term for a male homosexual. However, though that usage (short for “faggot”) is known in the U.K., it is not often used — just as well, since the word has enough meanings already.

The most widespread meaning of “fag” is a cigarette. Another meaning is any rather boring chore or task: “Traipsing ’round clothes shopping with my girlfriend was a bit of a fag.” In a similar meaning, a “fag” is a junior pupil at a public school assigned to do duties (such as fetching and carrying) for an older boy. Finally, a fag or (more usually) fag-end is a leftover scrap of anything.

Intriguingly, these meanings are all related. The earliest sense (perhaps from “flag”) was a verb meaning to droop or decline. A fag, or fag-end, came to mean the last part of a piece of cloth, because it drooped or hung loose. In time it came to mean a fag-end of anything — all this before 1500. Much later, it was used in this sense to mean the fag-end of, specifically, a cigarette, and so by extension simply a cigarette.

Meantime. the word was also naturally used to mean to grow tired, from which the meaning of “a chore” (and the public-school sense) developed before 1800.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge

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