Twitter is a rare and dangerous creature. Nobody’s quite sure what it does, but we all know that it bites if you antagonise it. It mauled Miranda Devine and Marieke Hardy, and it knocked Catherine Deveney clean off her perch at The Age. Now it’s Stephanie Rice’s turn to get twitslapped. When the Wallabies defeated the Springboks on the weekend, she exultantly tweeted:

“Suck on that faggots. Probs the best game I’ve ever seen!! Well done boys”

This has come back to bite her on her athletic ar-e. Rice has now forfeited her enviable role as the human mascot for Jaguar.

The word faggot, as a derogatory term for a male homos-xual, is on a kind of semantic threshold where it’s meaning can be extended as a general insult aimed at any man. In other words, one of the embodied senses of faggot as a “disreputable man worthy of scorn” is given more prominence in the extended usage. This is clearly how Stephanie Rice applied it. So why did it offend?

Probably because faggot is still such a malicious insult that only a masterful user can make it funny or risqué. Call a homophobic man a faggot and you risk a violent response. Call a non-homophobic or gay man a faggot and you signal a moral objection to their very existence. The offence is multidimensional. Even merely mentioning the word, as opposed to actually using it, can get you into trouble as Isaiah Washington of Grey’s Anatomy discovered. This doesn’t mean that faggot is always offensive to everyone all of the time.

David Sedaris has applied it with great humour, and I never get tired of reading The Onion’s self-explanatory opinion piece: “Let Us Identify The Faggots And Then Inform Them Of Their Status”. But within the media ecology at large, Twitter is an ambiguous beastie that resists domestication. At no point can you be certain of your audience and of the context in which they will read your remarks. Divorced of a stable context, a judgment about whether Stephanie Rice’s tweet was offensive is neither here nor there.

Folk etymologists have claimed that faggot (homos-xual) is a kind of metonym of faggot (bundle of sticks), and that the association harks back to a time when homos-xuals were burnt at the stake along with heretics.

Like all good stories this is the very height of bollocks, but there is perhaps a dim relationship between the two words. The “bundle of sticks” meaning comes to English via the equivalent French word fagot, which may in turn have come from Italian faggotto. This is where the trail goes cold but there is a plausible connection to the Latin fascis for “bundle of wood” from whence we also get fascism (via Italian fascio “bundle”, referencing the Roman symbol of the fasces, a bundle of rods with a protruding axe representing power).

From the late 16th century, faggot came to be used as a term of contempt for a woman and the OED has examples of this sense right up to 1969. How did this meaning emerge? Douglas Harper speculates that it was a metaphorical extension. Like “baggage” the contemptible woman is “something awkward that has to be carried”.

In the early 20th century there are examples of faggot in the sense of an effeminate or homos-xual man. So it seems likely that calling a man a faggot was to accuse him of displaying negatively evaluated female traits. Much like rugby players who fail to overcome their opponents and thus lose the esteem of an international swimming champion. Indeed, must we carry these effeminate South Africans like so much awkward baggage?, Stephanie seems to ask. Or should we, rather, invite them to sup in humiliation upon our righteous victory?

It’s hardly likely that Rice is homophobic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she used faggot among her friends in its emergent sense, without bigotry, as a general male-directed insult. But within the media ecology at large, Twitter is an ambiguous beast.