Sometimes a phrase found in one of the documents in Thomas Bowrey’s surviving papers will seem to be so modern that I do a double-take. Have I misread it? Can it really be genuine? Such a phrase can result in me feeling much closer to the writer. It all seems so much more immediate – not over three centuries old. Today’s manuscript contains one of these phrases.
On this day in 1708, John Starks wrote to Captain Thomas Bowrey from Virginia. Starks starts by hoping that Bowrey had made some progress in the case of the Worcester and then continues by saying I am gott into a Fag end of the world. He is frustrated that there is little news of business in England and, what there is, is very old news. He says that he has confidence that the Worcester affair will come to a successful conclusion under the management of such good hands of Bowrey and the other owners. Stark had an interest in the case as one of the owners of the ship’s cargo. There actually appears to be no point to the letter but I am so glad Starke wrote it and Bowrey kept it.
Checking the OED provides the answer. Fag-end and Virginia in the same document obviously made me think of cigarettes but that is not the origin of the phrase. The fag-end was was used for the last part or remnant of anything, the extreme end and the earliest recorded use was 1613. It came to mean the last part of a piece of cloth, the part that hangs loose, often of coarser texture than the rest and the end of a piece of rope, the untwisted part. Both theses later definitions were in subjects with which Bowrey would have been familiar but neither of these uses were recorded as early as this letter.