I'm from Pennsylvania. With the recent threat by the Westboro Baptist Church to protest the funeral of seven children who perished in a fire, I've been thinking a lot about their infamous catchphrase: "God Hates Fags." Religious debates aside, when did "fag" become an offensive word?
According to the online etymology dictionary that I use, "Faggot" came into usage in 1914 and "fag" in 1921. Prior to that definitions included a bundle of sticks for faggot and cigarette for fag.
Fag, used with the meaning of "a male homosexual" has origin as short for faggot (1920s), which has then origin from the obsolete sense of fagot (contemptible woman).
[Reference: the New Oxford American Dictionary, third edition.]
We all know that word meanings and usage change over time (though not all of us are happy about it). How long does a word have to be used in a particular way for that usage to be "okay"? At what point does it become "correct usage" and what determines that?
(It's hard to come up with an example that doesn't sound like peeving, so I'm making up a word.) If, for example, I started using the word "disregardless," most people would regard that as "wrong" or at least "not a real word." How many other people would have to use "disregardless" regularly for it to become an accepted word in the language? Does it matter if it's spoken or written? Does the "quality" of the speaker matter? (If the President uses the word, does that increase its "correctness" more than, say, when Bart Simpson uses it?) Is there a tipping point where a word goes from "made up" to "real" in the world at large, or is acceptance a gradual process throughout?
It depends on how useful a hole in the language the neologism is filling. If something becomes urgent as a topic of conversation and there was no word before, then it can quickly be accepted.
If a word is misspelled, people are more likely to resist the change, especially if the the old spelling is deeply entrenched, and it can take many years for the change to be accepted. It tends to go by critical mass; when enough 'respected' sources use a word - which used to mean broadsheet newspapers or literary magazines or novels or other books - then the lexicographers would pick it up and add it to the dictionaries, and the word would start to be accepted.
In the internet age, the process takes place much more rapidly. 'Weblog' gave way to 'blog' in almost no time at all.
A silly answer although it's probably true:
"When Google returns meaningful results without suggesting an alternative spelling"
That's an interesting question, but it doesn't really have a well-defined answer. The useless but essentially correct answer is "when enough people think it's correct".
The thing is that, no matter how hard people try to argue otherwise, prescriptivism doesn't really work that well. Language changes are slow and amorphous, so it's hard to draw a definitive line in the sand where something goes from right to wrong. You can probably find points in time where it's pretty clear-cut if it's one or the other, but there's no exact point in time where it makes the transition.
It depends how common the word is.
A very obscure technical term may only get a handful of mentions in print by a couple of authors so it's very easy to change - while a common word will remain unchanged for centuries.
The most famous recent one is "a flange of baboons" made up for the Gerald the Gorilla sketch on "not the nine O clock news" which made it in the OED "askoxford" site and is now used in scientific literature