That’s why they are called whores!

There are a surprising number of nicknames for the world’s oldest profession — call girls, prostitutes, prostitutes, ladies of the night — but the term you’ve probably heard the most is “prostitute.” Unlike other terms, however, it’s not easy to see how the understatement connects to the activity. How exactly does sex work relate to hooks? Whatever it is, it looks painful. Instead, however, it all goes back to a Civil War major, a noisy New York harbor, and medieval pickpockets. 

The Frat Boy General

In the early days of the American Civil War, the Union Army was led by Major General Joseph Hooker, who earned the nickname “Fighting Joe”. Hooker may have had command skills as a military leader, but his camp was a bit more disorganized. Drinking, partying and general debauchery were common under Hooker. This type of behavior eventually led to Fighting Joe’s demotion, as his men were often too drunk, hung over, or lacking in sleep to be effective soldiers. After some costly defeats, Hooker was replaced as leader of the Army of the Potomac. 

Hooker Division

A common sight in Hooker’s camp, alongside the discarded liquor containers, were large numbers of prostitutes hoping to earn a few coins by keeping the lone soldiers happy. While there is no evidence to prove that Fighting Joe enjoyed the company of these “fallen doves”, he definitely allowed his men to join his services. The prostitutes who followed the troops from camp to camp were called “Hooker’s Division”. While it is doubtful that this phenomenon is solely responsible for the term, it was a coincidence that certainly helped to spread it. A more likely point of origin is…

A turbulent harbor: the “resort for the lustful”

Another story claims that the word refers to a place, not a person. On New York’s Lower East Side is a point of land jutting into the East River that was known as early as the 1600s as Corlear’s Hook, named after one of the first plantation owners, Jacobus von Corlear. The man, by all accounts, was an honest fellow. His land, however, was a prime location for maritime activities around the island of Manhattan. 

New York’s most famous red light district

At the turn of the 19th century, the Hook of Corlear was home to shipbuilders and a shipyard, and the influx of sailors to the area brought in a lot of business-minded women looking to cater to their needs. Within a few decades, Corlear’s Hook was New York’s most famous red light district, boasting over 85 brothels. A newspaper at the time wrote that the areas were “a resort for the indecent and derelict of both sexes, its streets crowded nightly with prejudiced groups of thieves and whores”. The Hook of Corlear’s most notorious residents became known as “whores”.

Medieval Pickpockets and Riff Raff

Most medieval-era prostitutes had specific skill sets. In addition to the tricks of the trade, they were also petty criminals and pickpockets, and were as creative in that endeavor as they were presumably in their main occupation. They used long poles with hooks at the end to snatch purses, bags and other valuables from their unsuspecting victims. It was usually a collaborative effort, with one team member keeping the victim busy while another used the grappling hook to steal his coin purse. The obvious nickname for this half of the team was whore. Soon, the word “whore” was just a synonym for “whore”, which must have been very irritating to the more pedantic members of the trade.

A Hooker by any other name

“Hooker” is still a common term for a sex worker, but many are irritated by it. Although the lines are somewhat blurred, there is a definite hierarchy in commerce and each rung has its own preferred terminology. The very word “prostitute” is quite clinical. A “call girl” implies a high-end sex worker. A “lady of the night” has a somewhat old-fashioned and even romanticized connotation, while “prostitute” conjures up images of a desperate woman who has turned to her older profession due to unfortunate circumstances. But a whore… now,  that implies a person belonging to the lowest rung of the hierarchy. It is a name associated with the loose women who frequented the Civil War camps, the dirty doves of New York shipyards, and the evil thieves of medieval England.