Fag station

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Jimmy Callin sent in this photograph of a sign in Nanjing:

The Chinese part of the sign says simply: xīyān chù 吸烟处 ("smoking area").

The translation of xīyān chù 吸烟处 ("smoking area") and xīyān zhàn 吸烟站 ("smoking station") as "fag station" is sanctioned by iCIBA, also by Seadict, and many other online Chinese-English / English-Chinese dictionaries.

For xīyān chù 吸烟处 ("smoking area"), Baidu Fanyi gives:

1. smoke area

2. Smoking Area

3. smokery

4. smoke point

5. fag station

Because I was sure that I had seen the expression "fag station" long before Jimmy sent in this photograph, I googled to check out how extensive its usage was and was amazed to find that — in quotation marks — it received 432,000 ghits.

Obviously, not all of these instances are references to places where smoking is allowed, but a considerable proportion of them are. In fact, if you want to let guests at your home know where it is permissible to smoke, you can get a wooden version of the Fag Station sign here.

As for the other meanings of "fag station", some are obvious, but there are also some that I am not confident that I fully understand, including the frequent references to truckers ("fag station for truckers to unload"), to video games, and occasionally to Japanese otaku lifestyle (most likely related to the previous item).

Here's one, from The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Otago & Southland Provincial Districts], that completely threw me for a loop:

Mr. John Sammons . Officer in charge of the Forest Hill Tablet Signal Station, was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1844. He went to sea as a youth, and served twelve years in the Royal Navy, in various parts of the world. Mr Sammons came to the Bluff, by the ship "Zealandia," in 1872, and joined the New Zealand railway service, in which he held the position of guard until he was appointed officer in charge of the Forest Hill fag station.

N.B.: see below for the probable origin of the expression as used here.

Several that I followed up were apparently due to OCR misreading of "name-tag station", such as this one from "Jewish Family Education: Shabbat and Holidays": "You will see a name-fag station in the outside play area. Please take a moment to put on name tags!" You can also find OCR misreadings of "flag station" as "fag station", such as this one in "Cases Argued and Decided in the Supreme Court of Mississippi …", Volume 67 (1890): "Railroads. Failure to stop at flag station. Nominal damages."

It would appear that "fag station" is an expression that, when used correctly, does not raise any eyebrows, but when employed inappropriately, is apt to give rise to double takes and giggles. The problem with the interpretation of "fag station" arises from the fact that "fag" itself has such a wide variety of different meanings, for which see this online dictionary entry.



16 Comments

  1. Sam said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    Reminds me of my favourite English sign I saw at the Summer Palace outside Beijing over an emergency exit – "Escape Hatch".

  2. Bob Coard said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

    I think it was Eric Partridge who reasoned that "fag end" for the remnant of something preceded the use of fag for cigarette. From being used as a term for a cigarette butt it became ysed to to mean the whole cigarette.

  3. AntC said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    Hi Victor, I think the Cyclopedia of New Zealand entry that threw you is an OCR error.
    This entry http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc04Cycl-t1-body1-d7-d58.html has Forest Hill flag station aka Tablet signal station.
    This http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Token_(railway_signalling) explains what a Tablet signal station is, for controlling single-track rail lines.
    I guess flag signalling/stations was an earlier method.
    (Nearly all NZ rail lines are single-track. The Kingston line on which Forest Hill sits is still in operation — at the Kingston end — as a tourist attraction.)

  4. Rob P. said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    Poking around on the New Zealand cyclopedia a little more confirms that it was a flag station in North Forest Hill. I assume that a flag station is one at which there is not a scheduled stop but that a flag would signal a requested stop at that station from time to time.
    http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc04Cycl-t1-body1-d7-d63.html

  5. AntC said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

    @Rob P, you're right. Wikipedia redirects 'flag station' to 'request stop'.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_station

  6. Steve said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 7:49 pm

    I'm skeptical that one can use the phrase "fag station" in the US, in any context, without risking a number of raised eyebrows. If it is a term of art in trucking and videogaming, you MIGHT be able to use it in such circles with nary a raised eyebrow, but I suspect that, even then, smirks and bad puns would still be frequent, if not universal, companions to such usages.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

    The google books hits that are not obvious OCR errors seems to suggest that "fag station" was at least at one point in AmEng a technical term used by those involved in fighting forest fires and perhaps those who worked in forests in general at times of high fire risk (i.e., people whose job responsibilities put them in contexts where the general rule in former times that when outdoors one could smoke anywhere where it was not expressly forbidden did not apply, but because of the unusual circumstances the rule was instead that smoking was forbidden except in those special locations where it was expressly permitted). But I'm not seeing much evidence that it ever escaped that specialized context.

  8. David Morris said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 6:18 am

    I hope the fag station is nowhere near the mole station.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    I can distinctly remember smoking "fags" in the American South in the mid/late 20th century. It has been a long time since I heard this, but I also haven't been around smoking talk in a long time as well.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    The usage of "station" in this context seems very unidiomatic to my ear, thus compounded the problem, but google books does turn up some examples both old and recent (including by American writers) of "smoking station" to mean "location where smoking is permitted," although there are also lots of hits that are false positives.

  11. BarryB said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

    My first inclination on seeing the picture was to filter out the pictograms and immediately switch to German, and think, "Oh, bad translation for wood shed." Which is actually close, though no cigar. Excuse the pun.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

    @BarryB

    None of the three Chinese characters is a pictogram.

  13. Michael Jurkovic said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

    I'm rather bad with sarcasm at times, but I'd like to say that the phrase "fag station for truckers to unload" seems rather unambiguous to me. I a male homosexual.

    Truck stops have, prior to the wonders of the internet and smartphone apps, served as a fairly "safe" place for men to meet and "interact." A "fag station" in that sense would be a truckstop that is particularly well known for homosexual encounters.

    The unloading part is a nice little double entendre referring to the load of the truck as well as, well, the "load" (sperm) of a man.

  14. j2h said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

    if anyone was wondering, "fag station" in a videogaming context has no special meaning, it's just a childish alteration of "PlayStation".

  15. Graeme said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 7:04 am

    As a child in the 70s one could buy sugar-lolly cigarettes called 'FAGS'. (Thin white candy with a red tip, in a very gay – in the old sense – little box).

    As a parent now I notice the same thing marketed as 'FADS'.

    A triumph for the health lobby rather than the gay lobby: the red tip is also gone.

  16. Nick Lamb said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

    To expand on j2h's comment: The same demographic that's heavily "into" video game consoles is also one in which "gay" has retained currency as a pejorative even as homophobia becomes less unacceptable for the general public. Affiliations are quite tribal, particularly among the younger players, they can't afford to own one of each so they'll be openly hostile to all the options they didn't go for. SEGA or Nintendo fans will have initially changed "PlayStation" to "Gay Station" for that reason. I personally haven't seen "Fag station" used before today but I would immediately assume it's just a result of "Gay -> Fag" if I saw it in a video game context. Childish name games are normal in that demographic, Microsoft's new XBox One is frequently referred to as the "Xbone" (Ex-bone), its predecessor the XBox 360 was often referred to as a "Three Shitty" and so on.

    Here are some Googled examples where "fag station" definitely refers to the PlayStation or its successors:

    http://fridayfall.tumblr.com/post/8977801233/lol-nice-fag-station-game

    https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=131575410220151&id=265658051493
    "No cos I don't have a fag station"

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1Hx_DH-lpw
    "Ummm the fag station sucks donkey balls I rather get a game boy"

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