“Shag”

I see that back in 2012, I gave a poll asking readers for NOOB nominees. I promised to follow up and do posts on the winners, which were shagflat, and a tie for third between gap year and row.

Typically, I proceeded to totally forget about it, though I did ultimately write about row and gap year.

Bringing this to mind is a line in an article by an American college professor that just came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He’s writing about the depiction of professors in Woody Allen’s films, starting with “Manhattan” (1979) where

Michael Murphy plays an English professor dragging his feet on an F. Scott Fitzgerald book while still having enough money to wonder if he should trade in his spacious apartment on the Upper East Side for a house in Connecticut, with seemingly endless time and money to eat the overpriced food at Elaine’s (and being enough of a celebrity to get a table there) and have an affair with Diane Keaton, with whom he can have a spontaneous shag at a hotel somewhere between Bloomingdale’s and 68th Street.

So, “shag.” It’s of course a verb and noun (as above) referring to the act of copulation, made popular worldwide by the subtitle of one of Mike Myers’s Austin Powers movie: “The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Fascinatingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for it came from none other than Thomas Jefferson in 177o: “He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.” All the subsequent citations are from British and Commonwealth sources.

I’m not sure of its current state of play thereabouts, but in the U.S., post-Austin Powers, it seems to have settled in as a euphemism slightly more randy  than some of the others on offer but still respectable enough to meet the standards of such publications as the Chronicle.

Next: “flat.”

11 responses to ““Shag”

  1. David Pothecary

    there any more context for that quote? What on earth was he referring to?

    • The OED gives only the one sentence. Can anyone provide any more information?

      • Google can, thanks to some online sleuths:
        “Thomas Jefferson
        Jefferson’s Memorandum Books volume 1
        And it’s the entry for Dec. 27 1770 on page 200.
        The page is titled Legal Notations and lists court actions but also seems to list cash account information. On December 27th one of the listings is:

        Id. v. Claudius Buster (Alb.). Bring action of slander for declaring of pl. in the open vestry that the pl. had said ‘he had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.’ Also that ‘the pl. wanted Sharp Spenser overseer of T. Nelson to steal corn for him.’

        The next listing is:

        Id. v. Adam Deane (Alb.). Bring action for these words ‘pl. said he fucked his mother and begot himself on her body.’
        Do nothing till I hear further.

        Seems to have been a common insult.”
        Link here to the discussion: http://blog.inkyfool.com/2011/02/thomas-jeffersons-mysterious-shag.html

        Here was I thinking it was a late 20th century coinage for a very casual sort of sexual coupling – more raw and coarse, I feel, than the tabloid “bonk” which seems slightly playful, or the even more domesticated and cuddly tabloid “romp”.

  2. I recall a humorous article in Scientific American some years ago that mentioned a baseball player who was also a scientist doing research into fruit fly genetics. It included the line (quoting from a very old memory), “So when he is not shagging flies, he’s shagging flies.”

    I presume the author meant that the scientist was getting the flies to reproduce, but that is not how we British would use the word. He’s actually saying that the person is having sex with a fly.

    • As a Brit, I need information on what the other connotation of ‘Shagging flies’ is – presumably a baseball term? I am agog to know!

      • Yes, exactly, Catherine. It is a somewhat complicated procedure. A coach stands with a bat in his right hand and a baseball in his left. (This “fungo” bat is a thin model designed for this purpose.) He tosses the ball in the air, and as it rises reaches for the bat with his left hand and takes a backswing. He then hits the ball high into the air towards one or more players arrayed a couple of hundred feet away They take turns practicing catching these “fly balls.” The whole process is known as “shagging flies.”

      • Thanks Ben. We do that in cricket as well – sometimes with a special bat, but more usually with an ordinary one. We just call it catching practice though – not very poetic!

  3. In 1999 I fly to Calgary AB with the family to go skiing. My snow stuff got lost by the airline and so I drove into the downtown. I was told by a young girl in Safeway that I could buy new snow pants etc at a store in the Shaganappi. I had never heard this name before and attempted to make light by saying to the assistant that shag meant something very rude in England. She looked at me with a beaming smile and said “I know!”. So I suppose the word is well known in North America. I suppose whether you use it it or not depends on who you may be trying to impress.

  4. The common cormorant (or shag)
    Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
    You follow the idea, no doubt?
    It’s to keep the lightning out.

    But what these unobservant birds
    Have never thought of, is that herds
    Of wandering bears might come with buns
    And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

    ( Christopher Isherwood)

  5. Pingback: “Flat” | Not One-Off Britishisms

  6. The meaning of “shag” in its British sense is understood in at least parts of the USA, but only as a casual, more or less polite way of referring to a sexual relationship, with no real awareness of what it means in British culture.

    I remember well that when the Mike Myers’ movie was in theatres in London the marquees read “The Spy Who Sh***ed Me,” but when the movie was in theaters in the USA the marquees all read “The Spy Who Shagged Me.”

    The meaning of “to shag” or “shagging” in the southeastern USA is really complicated by the fact that in the years following WW II along the beaches of North and South Carolina young folks took up a dance that was a slowed down version of the jitterbug.

    They (we) called this dance the Shag, and dancing this dance was called, of course, “shagging.”

    I have no idea where this name came from, and I’ve never, ever known it to be associated with the British meaning.

    Here is Wikipedia on this uniquely southeastern American sense of “shagging.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolina_shag

    Here is a YouTube video of people shagging in this sense:

    This dance was performed chiefly to early rhythm and blues and rock and roll. The songs that were especially appropriate for this dance developed into a canon of music called Beach Music (and it has nothing to to with the Beach Boys and California, which is a whole ‘nother world).

    Here is Wikipedia on Beach Music:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beach_music

    Shagging (in this southeastern American sense) continues to be popular among those of us who, though aging, can immediately see the waves rolling in when we hear the Drifters sing “Up on the Roof” or “Under the Boardwalk” or the the Tams sing “What Kind of Fool do you Think I Am?” or the Four Tops sing “My Girl.”

    As one of those folks, I can testify that we only thought of “shagging” as a dance and not ever in the British sense, although we certainly hoped that some of the relationships we formed on the dance floor might lead to something more romantic.

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