Oh boy. Did you ever realise just how many uses this word has? And how many pages of dubious photography I had to look at to get the picture I needed for this post? I was up all night, sweating and straining until my wrists were tired. It was all OK when I started looking for the pictures again.
The word as a noun comes from the Old English word sceacga – “rough matted hair or wool” and possibly also from the Old Norse skegg (beard). The verb form is taken directly from an obscure Old English word with the same spelling, meaning “to shake or waggle”. The most popular usage by far is one form of the verb. To put it delicately, it means “to engage in sexual congress”, although the shaking and waggling origins of the word would suggest it was a little more vigorous than the usual form – but then, that depends on what you consider usual. This usage was largely British until the advent of Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films. Since the advent of Goldmember et al, American folk have been using the word ‘shag’ to refer to sex, in a trend nearly as annoying as their appropriation of ‘wanker’ and ‘bloody’, neither of which they can make sound convincing.
As a noun, it can mean matted hair – such as a dog’s coat, a roughly-cut form of pipe tobacco, or any type of cloth with a coarse, matted texture – such as a shag-pile carpet. The other common use of the noun I know of is that the shag is Phalacrocorax punctatus, a wading bird related to the cormorant. Even though the birds’ names are used interchangeably, there are subtle differences. Half the world’s population of shags live in the UK and cormorants are significantly lower in number, so if you see one in the UK, it’s likely to be a shag. An old fisherman from Cornwall tells me that cormorants will hold their wings out to dry after fishing, as they are less ‘waterproof’ than the shags. This seems largely anecdotal though and not even the internet seems to be able to shed a lot of light on it – perhaps you know different? Suffice to say, driving along a seaside road and shouting ‘cormorant!’ is far less amusing than the alternative option.
The poem below is one I read in school and loved – although if I’m honest, it was initially because of the word. The poem was by Christopher Isherwood and is still fun; whether you consider the words rude or not:
The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.
There is one more use of shag as both a noun and a verb. The Shag was a minor dance craze in the USA on several occasions throughout the 20th century, beginning in the 1920s. It would seem that when it comes to shagging, once is simply not enough.