Sunday, 10 November 2013


Ask me not where I stand or what I believe, ye men of little trust judge not a man. Thus thou not the almighty.

Terms for prostitutes form perhaps the most powerful and extensive word-field for abuse and swearing in the language, emerging consistently throughout its history. Several terms have their own entries, some being discussed in the overlapping category of promiscuity. Although prostitution has evidently been practiced throughout history, a history of prostitution is more difficult to construct, and is obviously beyond the range of this work.

However, literature gives us a number of sharp vignettes and telling insights. Chaucer’s fragmentary Cook’s Tale briefly describes the underworld of fourteenth-century London, in which the figure of Perkyn Revlour (“Reveller”) lives a fast life of “dys, riot and paramour” (“gambling,parties and lovers”) (ll. 4392). He takes up with a friend whohadde a wyf that heeld for contenanceA shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance.[had a wife who kept a shop as a front and fucked for her living.] (ll. 4421–22)At this point the tale comes to an abrupt and unexplained halt. Another glimpses into the low life of the times comes in the Miller’s Tale when the unfortunate suitor Absolom, encountering a blacksmith very early in the morning, is playfully asked if some “gay gerl” has kept him up (l. 3769). The euphemism was to have a long currency.

Chaucer’s contemporary William Langland, the presumed author of Piers Plowman, refers bitterly to the institutional corruption of his times, when “rascals become lords, ignorant men teachers and Holy Church helps whores” (C Text, Passus XV, ll. 20–21).Public baths, one of the unexpected cultural introductions of the Crusades, became places of sexual assignation known as stews, generating women of the stews, an early name for a prostitute.

Langland has two characters called “Jack the Jester and Janet of the Stews” (A Text,Passus VII, l. 65). Because of their evil reputation, stews were later renamed bagnios, which originally (ca. 1615) signified a Turkish bath before rapidly degenerating into the sense of“brothel.” As Dr. Johnson noted: “probably stew like bagnio, took a bad signification from bad use.”

Interestingly, brothel itself first meant a “rascal” or “lewd person” in the fourteenth century, a brothel house being originally a place frequented by such types, before acquiring its independent form and modern meaning about 1593.The major Elizabethan theaters were all built in an area of London noted for its brothels. Part of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (ca. 1604) is set in a brothel run by the graphically named Mistress Overdone.

The odd underground phrase Winchester goose, meaning a prostitute, found in Henry VI, Part I (I ii 53) and Troilus and Cressida (V x 53–54), is explained thus by Hesketh Pearson: Ben Jonson also has a reference to “the Winchestrian Goose” in his contemporary satire “An Execration upon Vulcan.”

But more pointed are the punning jibes in the opening broadside of 1588 by the popular pseudonymous pamphleteer “Martin Marprelate,” who attacked the Bishops of London and Winchester as “The right puissant and terrible priests, my clergy-masters ofthe Confocation-house, whether fickers general, or worshipful paltripolitan” (cited in Colman,1974, 49). (Shakespeare was to pun on “focative” and fuck in Henry V, IV i 53–55, while fickers,ostensibly a version of vicars, certainly echoes “fuckers.”)

An unexpectedly thorough source of evidence on prostitution is the great Victorian researcher into London’s low life, Henry Mayhew. In 1862, eleven years after the publication of the first three volumes of his gigantic survey, London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew issued London’s Underworld, containing about a hundred pages on prostitution and its social structure.

Working on a current estimate of 80,000 prostitutes out of a population of one million, he distinguished about twenty different categories, such as “Seclusives,” “BoardLodgers,” “Sailors’, Soldiers,’ and Thieves’ Women,” as well as “Clandestine Prostitutes,”such as “Female Operatives,” “Maid-Servants” and “Ladies of Intrigue.” However, Mayhew's criteria and assumptions are strictly Victorian in both his sense of hierarchy and his double standards. He arranges the categories in terms of a class structure, regarding the “Seclusives”—for example, “those women who are kept by men of independent means” as living in a state that is “the nearest approximation to the holy state of marriage” (1983, 34) down to the occasional “base coloured woman” described in horrific detail with “sable black skin, leering countenance and obscene disgusting tongue, resembling a lewd spirit of darkness from the nether world” (1983, 43). However, for Mayhew, “Literally every woman who yields to her passions and loses her virtue is a prostitute” (1983, 34). Furthermore, nowhere does he even hint at the male industry, which surfaced in the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889.

His vocabulary is a mixture of direct terms like prostitute, brothel, and loose women, and euphemisms like chère amie and prima donna.The terminology is mainly native and, as the accompanying word-field shows, the American contribution has been considerable. Only what might be called the globally comprehensible terms have been included, since there are many slang terms from other varieties, such as U.S. Black ho (from whore), as well as Australian chromo, grunter, and prosso. Of the core terms, some, like whore, are found from the earliest stages of the language and have retained their condemnatory sense; others, like quean and strumpet, have become obsolete.

Still others, like hussy, trollop, and broad, have moved into a rather ambiguous semantic area between the category of “prostitute” and “loose woman” or “sexually available woman.” Bunter, for example,was defined by Francis Grose in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) as “a low dirty prostitute, half whore and half beggar.” It was still in use in Victorian times. Several have erratic semantic histories: thus harlot was originally a male term meaning “a rascal” before becoming feminized, a semantic change that slag and tramp have followed. Punk, on the other hand, has moved in the opposite direction in terms of both meaning, from “prostitute” to “worthless person.”Harlot, a remarkable term, was previously derived from Arlette, the mother of the illegitimate William the Conqueror; however, this etymology is now dismissed as “a random conjecture of the sixteenth century.”

From about 1225 the word carries the male senses of “vagabond, beggar,rogue, rascal,” one of the most memorably scathing uses being the description of Chauser's sexually ambivalent Summoner: “He was a gentil [noble] harlot and a kynde” (General Prologue, l.647). However, by 1432–1450, when Ranulph Higden used the term in his Polychronicon, it clearly had the modern sense, since he recounts this amusing euphemism: “The harlottes at Rome were called the nonariae [the nuns].” (Nunnery subsequently acquired the sense in Elizabethan underworld slang of a brothel, famously used by Hamlet of Ophelia in Hamlet III i 135).A related term from the sex industry also showing feminization is bawd. Of uncertain origin, it is first used in Langland’s Piers Plowman (ca. 1380) to mean a procurer or a procuress. Although the majority of early applications are masculine, by 1700 it has become exclusively feminized. More on the fringe is harridan, which has previous French associations of “an old jade” or worn-out horse, but in English these are sharpened into “a haggard old woman; avixen,” and in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) more classically “a decayed strumpet.”

More recent is slag, amazingly first found in Grose (1785) with the quite different sense of “a slack-mettled fellow” or coward, before appearing in the 1930s onward in various disreputable roles, such as “a vagrant or petty criminal,” “a contemptible person.” The earliest record of the modern female sense is 1958.The field has many euphemisms such as lady of the night, which are really more in the category of ironic or pseudo-euphemisms. In recent decades, partly through the initiatives of political correctness, there has been an attempt to rehabilitate “the oldest profession” bya species of semantic “make-over,” substituting the more industrial term “sex-worker” (ca.1982) and the superficially more respectable “escort.” Like most artificially created euphemisms, they cannot be used as swear words.

Whore itself has a long history as a term of abuse, as would be expected, but its earlier applications are sometimes surprising: in the Elizabethan comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle (ca. 1575), a character spots a cat sipping milkout of a pan and shouts “Ah hore! Out thefe!” (I iii).Male prostitution has been acknowledged for centuries, but seldom openly discussed in Anglo-Saxon culture. However, a number of terms for male prostitutes or kept male lovers like catamite and ingle date from the late sixteenth century and are discussed under the entry for homosexuals. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1606) the candid Fool Thirsites provokes Patroclus: “Thou art thought to be Achilles male Varlot,” perhaps punning on harlot, inducing this exchange:Patroclus: Why, what’s that?Thersites: Why, his masculine whore.(V i 20) Many of the synonyms have become obsolete, but the modern term rent boy (ca. 1975) is the most explicit. It is an interesting curiosity to find that call girl (ca. 1922), is matched by call boy (ca. 1924). In his Slang Thesaurus (1988) Jonathon Green lists over thirty such terms, virtually as many as for the female variety, including ass peddler, cocksman, commercial queer, fag boy, footsoldier, and the ironic working girl.

Finally, whore is increasingly used in a generalized way of males who prostitute their principles in business or politics. 1100 whore1200 1300 strumpet, concubine, quean, common woman 1400 harlot, slut, filth, mistress 1500 drab, trull, mutton, cat, doxy1600 prostitute, moll, punk, doll, jade, hussy, trollop, gypsy, slattern 1700 biddy, conveniency, bunter 1800 fallen woman, hooker, blowen, streetwalker 1900 broad, call girl, call boy, tramp, tart, lady of the night, hustler, slag 2000 escort, sex worker The association between prostitutes and swearing is striking in its persistence, being alluded to in Hamlet (II ii 568–75).

While terms like slut, slattern, hussy, and moll obviously implies lovenly or crude behavior, the modern term slag also has the verbal senses to slag or to slag off, meaning “to vilify or denigrate,” dating from about 1971.

Now that is just the beauty of the unknown. Choke on it.