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‘Lock Her Up! Burn Them!’

December 7, 2018

I was a skinny kid and not good at sports until I took up distance running in high school. Until then bullies used to push me around and call me a faggot. I didn’t know what faggot meant, and I bet they didn’t either.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

I was a skinny kid and not good at sports until I took up distance running in high school. Until then bullies used to push me around and call me a faggot. I didn’t know what faggot meant, and I bet they didn’t either.

Now, of course, I know what it means, or is supposed to mean. It’s not what you think.

Faggot occurs in written English as early as 1300, when it meant a bundle of sticks, to be burned as fuel. It was an inoffensive word for more than 400 years — far longer than it's had the supposedly offensive onus it carries today.

By 1555, heretics — however defined — sometimes had to bear a bundle of twigs on their sleeve as they were led to a pile of faggots to be burned alive.

By 1591, faggot had become “a term of abuse or contempt applied to a woman,” though the reason for this is unclear — all this according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Still nothing about homosexuality, or not being good at sports.

In 1530, “fag” or “fagging” meant to tire, or to perform wearisome toil, possibly as a corruption of the verb “flag.” Only in the 1700s did fag come to mean to perform wearisome service for another — which led, presumably, to its vulgar meaning today.

Why am I rehearsing this?

Because our country’s discourse today is permeated with insult, violence, ugliness and threats, and, as with the bullies who used to beat me up for no reason, most of the people who are doing this do not understand what they are saying.

Oh, sure, they think they know what mean when they spew “fag” or “nigger” or “liberal” or “Lock her up!” from their putrid mouths. But I do not think they do understand it.

I’m taking a charitable view about this.

To continue with our main theme: I believe that all the insults and threats I received as a child help me to understand, just a little bit, what it’s like to be a girl, or a woman, today.

Why in God’s name do boys and men think it’s OK to inflict violence upon girls and women? For what? Why? Short of rape, what sort of thrill do they get, or think they are getting, from it?

Everyone knows a strong person can beat up a weaker one. But what’s the point?

Just so, what sort of thrill does the president of the United States get from insulting, threatening and abusing people? And, being as he’s the president, every U.S. citizen is weaker than him. So far as I can see, the only people don Johnny does not insult are other bullies who could beat him up.

We are living in vile times. And I believe that the chief bullies among us not only do not understand what they are doing (as I said, I’m being charitable about this), I believe they do not even understand what they are saying.

Don john Trump, acolyte of the verminous Roy Cohn — the attorney for Sen. Joe McCarthy — has the brass to accuse Special Counsel Robert Mueller of “McCarthyism”?

Is our president too stupid, or too willfully ignorant to understand how ridiculous this is?


Do words — the dictionary definition of words — mean nothing anymore? No, they mean nothing anymore.

Here’s a true story about one of the guys who used to call me a faggot.

After I made the cross-country team, he stopped trying to beat me up. (Maybe he got tired of chasing me — he was an offensive lineman and slower than I was.) By senior year we’d both become potheads. (Hey, it was the ‘60s.)

One afternoon at a basement party I passed a joint to him, and after he toked and passed it on, I asked him: “Joel, why have you been trying to beat me up for three years?”

He said, in that held-in voice: “Because I thought you were a faggot.”


“Because you carry that briefcase.”

“That’s not a briefcase,” I said. “It’s a clarinet case.”

“Well,” he said, exhaling, “I thought it was a briefcase.”

As though that explained it.

So, my fellow Americans, there’s the answer to why there is so much hate, vitriol, racism, ignorance, prejudice, violence, religious fanaticism and degradation of language in our country today.

Too many goddam clarinetists.

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