Four Things You Didn't Know Were Homophobic and One You Did

April 17th 2016

These days, you don't hear the word "gay" thrown around as a derogatory term. But other everyday expressions have a homophobic history or carry antigay connotations you might not realize.

Here are five common words and sayings with roots in homophobia.

1. Bugger

When you call someone a lazy little bugger, you probably don't mean to accuse them of being a Bulgarian sodomite. But the expression dates back to homophobia in the Middle Ages.

"The term stemmed from the Bogomils, who led a religious sect during the Middle Ages called 'Bulgarus,'" Business Insider reported. This group was thought to be heretical and members were said to engage in gay sex. Even now, a variation of the term "bugger" is a Hungarian slur for a gay man.

2. Nervous Nellie

The term "nervous Nellie" borrows from "nelly" and "nancy," archaic derogatory descriptors for gay men.

The words imply that gay men lack masculinity because of their sexual orientation, Bust said. These days, such terms probably aren't the best way to refer to an antsy or jittery friend.

"Typically we say that 'fag,' 'sissy,' 'nancy,' 'nelly,' and 'fairy' are homophobic words, and although they certainly are used to perpetuate homophobia, they are not homophobic in and of themselves; the usage of any of these words as slurs usually targets people with male-sexed bodies who do not act sufficiently masculine," queer activist Simon Moritz said on Bust.

They also are inherently sexist and frame femininity as an insult meant to emasculate men, Moritz added: "They prize masculinity by demonizing femininity."

"Nervous Nellie" was popularized in the 1920s when it was used to refer to Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, a notoriously timid politician, according to "Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang."

Needless to say, it is offensive to link homosexuality with timidity, as it is offensive to criticize a meek politician as being "gay" or "girlish."

3. On the Down Low/On the DL

"Shhh, keep it on the down low," a coworker says after spilling a tidbit of gossip. Sounds pretty harmless, right?

"On the down low" is actually a very specific term rooted in the Black community. The phrase first referred to Black men who had secret homosexual relationships and was later adopted by Black men who weren't closeted but who rejected white gay culture, according to The New York Times.

"Men first started claiming the label in the mid-'90s. Back then, the culture was completely under the radar, and DL men lived ostensibly heterosexual lives (complete with wives and girlfriends) but also engaged in secret sexual relationships with men," the Times reported.

In the early 2000s, Black men who described themselves with the term identified "themselves not as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as Black," the Times added.

"On the down low" remains rooted in paranoia about homosexuality and the belief that these men were spreading HIV/AIDS to heterosexual girlfriends and wives.

4. Sucks

If you've been around male elementary school students recently, you've probably heard a lot about what "sucks."

Sucks what? A penis, of course! Expressing your distaste for something in terms of a blowjob equates it with "a sexually submissive woman or a man forced into a homosexual act," Tom Megginson pointed out on the Ethical Adman blog, which is dedicated to addressing social issues in advertising, marketing, and media.

The notion that oral sex is inherently shameful also reflects a generally skewed view of sexuality, in which sex acts entail one party being belittled by the other.

Using sexual dominance as an insult is essentially the same thing as calling something gay: It implies that fellatio is gross, degrading, and punishing, particularly when it is performed by a man.

5. Faggot, Fag

It is common knowledge that these F-words are offensive, but it's worth revisiting why, especially if you're tempted to use tamer-seeming phrases like "fag hag."

The English words "faggot" and "fagot" come from Old French and first referred to bundles of sticks used as firewood, the Straight Dope reported. In the Middle Ages, men were burned alive at the stake for engaging in homosexual intercourse as well as other acts of heresy.

"In 1209 Pope Innocent authorized the Crusade against the Albigensians in France, a policy which resulted in nearly total genocide throughout the southern part of the country, and by the time the Inquisition would finish its work in the 17th century, several million heretics and homosexuals had been burned at the stake," Rictor Norton, a social and literary historian, wrote in an essay on the roots of homophobia.

The Oxford English Dictionary revealed the words' first uses, referring to "a bundle of sticks, twigs, or small branches of trees bound together: ... for
use as fuel" and "with special reference to the practice of burning heretics alive, esp. in [the] phrase fire and faggot; to fry a faggot, to be burnt alive; also, to bear, carry a faggot, as those did who renounced heresy."

In the early 20th century, the term was adopted in the United States as a derogatory way to refer to homosexual and effeminate men, the OED said. (Curiously, the word "faggot" was not commonly adopted in the British Isles in the same sense; indeed, a "fag" in the United Kingdom is most usually a slang term for a cigarette or used in the phrase "fagged out," meaning exhausted.)

Some parts of the gay community have reclaimed these terms. But that doesn't make them fair game for the rest of us. Azealia Banks should probably take note.

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