meanings and history of the term ‘fag end’



– the last part of something, especially when regarded as less important or interesting
– British, informal: a cigarette end




The obsolete adjective flag, attested in the late 16th century, meant flabby, hanging down. It was either an onomatopoeic formation or, via Middle French flac, from Latin flaccus, of same meaning. (The synonymous French adjective flasque is also from this Latin word.)

Related to this obsolete English adjective, the verb flag is first recorded in 1540. It now means to become tired or less enthusiastic or dynamic, but originally meant to hang down, to flap about loosely. (Similarly, the Middle-French verb flaquir, flachir, related to flac, meant to go soft, to weaken.) In The byrth of mankynde, the 1540 translation and adaptation by one Richard Jonas of a book on midwifery by the German physician Eucharius Rösslin (circa 1470-1526), it is recommended that the wet nurse’s breasts

be neyther to great, softe, hangynge, and flaggynge.

Although it is attested in 1530, earlier than the verb flag, the verb fag, meaning to work hard, especially at a tedious task, is apparently an alteration of the former. This would satisfactorily account for its original sense, which was, literally and figuratively, to droop, decline.

Similarly, the obsolete noun fag originally meant something that hangs loose. It is first recorded, used attributively, in The Bokys of Haukyng [= hawking] and Huntyng, and also of Cootarmuris [= heraldry], known as the Book of St. Albans, attributed to one Dame Juliana Barnes or Berners, Prioress of Sopwell Nunnery, near St. Albans, and printed in St. Albans Abbey in 1486:

The federis [= feathers] at the wynge next the body be calde the flagg or the fagg federis.

This noun was later used in various senses of fag end. A fag or fag end was the last part of a piece of cloth, of coarser texture than the rest and hanging loose. In Worcestershire Relics (1877), the English antiquary and journalist John Noake (1816-94) wrote that around 1580, in his will, one Mr. John Chappell, clothier, left to his sister-in-law a “fagg”, to make her a petticoat, and “to Roger Massye, our curate, a white fagg to make him a coat”. And Dictionarium Britannicum: Or a more Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary than any Extant (1730), edited by the English lexicographer Nathan Bailey (died 1742), contains:

Fag End, the latter end of cloth, &c.

A fag or fag end was also the untwisted end of a rope with the strands hanging loose. In The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1775), the English lexicographer and grammarian John Ash (1724-79) wrote:

Fag. The fringe at the end of a piece of cloth, the fringe at the end of a rope.
Fag end (from fag, and end). The end of a web of cloth frequently made of worse materials than the rest of the piece, the refuse or meaner part of any thing.
Fagg (a sea term). The fringed end of a rope.

As noted by John Ash, fag end has long been used metaphorically to denote the last part or remnant of anything, after the best has been used; it has also been used to mean the extreme end of a portion of space or time, a collection of persons, a written composition, volume, etc. The noun fag was also used in the latter sense; in The changeling as it was acted (with great applause) at the Privat [sic] house in Drury-Lane, and Salisbury Court (1622), the English playwrights Thomas Middleton (died 1627) and William Rowley (died 1626) wrote:

(1653 edition)
We have imployment, we have task in hand,
At noble Vermonderos our Castle Captain,
There is a nuptiall to be solemniz’d,
To finish (as it were) and make the fagg
Of all the Revels.

The earliest known metaphorical use of fag end is in The Hog hath lost his pearl (1613), by Robert Tailor, an otherwise unknown playwright:

(1780 edition)
– But come, hast aught to breakfast?
– Yes, there’s the fag-end of a leg of mutton.
– There cannot be a sweeter dish.

In the second volume of Athenæ Oxonienses: An exact history of all the writers and bishops who have had their education in the most ancient and famous University of Oxford (1692), the English antiquary Anthony Wood (1632-95) wrote of

the turning out of the Fag-end of that Parliament called the Rump by Col. Jo. Lambert and his Party.

(The Rump was the part of the Long Parliament which, in 1648, continued to sit after Pride’s Purge, i.e. the exclusion or arrest of about 140 members of parliament likely to vote against a trial of the captive Charles I by soldiers under the command of Colonel Thomas Pride.)

By the mid-19th century fag end had come to denote the butt of a smoked cigar. I have found “the fag end of our cigars” in Sketches of Local Hunts, a story published in the Wiltshire Independent of Thursday 10th April 1851. The term came to also denote the butt of a smoked cigarette. In Le slang : lexique de l’anglais familier et vulgaire, précédé d’une étude sur la prononciation et la grammaire populaires (1923), Joseph Manchon wrote:

Fag-end man, ramasseur de mégots (= fag-end picker).

In British English, elliptically from fag end, fag means a cigarette. The Pall Mall Gazette (London) of Saturday 31st May 1884 published The Social Wants of London (chapter 8: Country Holidays for Children), in which the Reverend C. L. Marson wrote, about the town child:

At the age of eight he smokes cigarettes and begins to be blasé—too blasé to perform catherine-wheels by the side of the trams with his bare-legged juniors, whose costume is a shirt (so-called), a pair of knickerbockers, and one brace tied on with string. Still he grows, and his “fag” or cigarette gives way to a clay, and he develops a taste for beer and “three ups.”

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