I remember my grandparents and parents using the term, “fagged out,” to mean exhausted or weary. Although I cannot prove that the term originated in New Hampshire, an ancient newspaper from this state seems to contain the earliest usage in print in the United States. Historical evidence shows that the term “fagged out” originated as a nautical term, or sailor’s slang to describe a rope with its ‘whipping’ gone, i.e. the end has become untwisted. The book “An Analytic Dictionary of the English Etymology: An Introduction,” incorrectly states that the word was first seen in connection with sailors in 1841, when it can clearly be seen below that as early as 1799, and probably before, the term was already being used in that sense, even beyond the American colonies (in England and Ireland).
Saturday, September 21, 1799, Amherst Village Messenger (Amherst NH); Vol.. IV, Issue 39; page 3: “said Captain…ordered the Boatswain’s Mate to take a rope’s end to the damn’d rascal…and the Captain followed the same with blows with his fist until the rope was fagged out about eight or nine inches in length…”
To prove my point that this term was solidly in use by this time, I came across an 1809 vocabulary book, a sample of the word section shown here.
Additional examples of the term, “fagged out,” used both as a nautical term, and a common term to mean tired, are continued below.
At least by 1847 the term was being used to mean exhausted. Tuesday, October 5, 1847, New Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth NH) Vol XCIII, Issue 40, Page 1 : An Eagle in the Cockpit “He seemed to be completely fagged out with his long journey, and could scarcely retain his hold on the riggin.”
Letter from Headquarters, Army of the James, Richmond, April 3d, 1865, from Johnston — to his mother during the Civil War: “I will write soon more at length. I am fagged out.” — page 13, of The colors of the United States first raised over the capitol … by Henry Barton Dawson.
Thursday, May 13, 1869 New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene NH) Vol LXXI, Issue 19, page 1
How to Lengthen Life: “5. Stop working before you are very much tired,–before you are “fagged out.”
Thursday, February 16, 1882 The New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette (Concord NH)
Ad/Classified “I could not get up without feeling wearing and all fagged out.”
Thursday, August 26,. 1886; New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette (Concord NH): page 8 : An Escapade. Two Prisoners Escaped and One Recaptured. “As it happened, however, Mr. Merrill did not have so much explosive substance as a match about him, but Welch was completely fagged out from running. When secured he laid all the blame on Dodge, who, he said, induced him to make the attempt.”
Wednesday, September 9, 1891 The New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene NH)
Hot Water as a Beautifier “I got to the hotel fifteen minutes before I needed to have arrived, and I was shocked on glancing in the mirror in the parlor to notice my disheveled and fagged out appearance.”
Additional usage in newspapers and publications, through journalism and poetry show the great prevalence of the term. I found many more examples than what is shown here, and that clearly this term was being frequently used into the 1940s.
The Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, by Admiral W.H. Smyth, London, 1867