Asinine and Old Lace
Dear Word Detective: Thanks to your column, I roll my eyes when I hear stories about the meaning of words that seem far-fetched, and my wife read me one recently from a book about crocheting. It was about the origin of the word “hooker” (meaning prostitute). Your column and others on the web seem to agree that the word comes not from the Civil War general but from underworld cant for stealing, as the ladies of the night “hook” their customers in. The book, however (which is called “The Happy Hooker” by Debbie Stoller) has another suggestion. Here’s the passage: “In a book published at the time [the early 19th century], a lace manufacturer admitted that he expected his workers to turn a few tricks on the side to make up for not paying them a living wage. Soon lace, including crocheted lace, began to be known as morally tainted — it’s made by prostitutes! As Donna Kooler suggests in The Encyclopedia Of Crochet, this may even explain how the word ‘hooker’ came to have such wayward connotations.” What do you think? I’m awful skeptical of this explanation. — Gary.
Me too, in the same way I’m skeptical about the earth being flat. The scary thing about that story is, however, that it would seem perfectly reasonable to many people. They’d nod their heads, smile and say, “No kidding! Well, that makes sense. Very interesting.” To be charitable, most people seem to assume that every word arrives fully-formed in the language, either coined by one particular person or inspired by a specific place, act or custom. The truth is that many words, especially slang, just sort of accrete, like stuff in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator, and change form and meaning over time (just like the asparagus you forgot you bought).
But it’s always nice to have a shiny new silly story about the origin of a word or phrase. The previous one about “hooker” coming from the camp-followers who tagged along with Major General Joseph Hooker (1814-79), a Union commander during the Civil War, was getting a bit shopworn. Long story short, the slang term “hooker,” meaning a prostitute, showed up in print well before the Civil War and almost certainly came from the older slang term “to hook,” meaning “to entice or swindle” (pretty obviously by analogy to fishing with a hook). As I mentioned in my original column on “hooker” many years ago, an 1850 magazine illustration titled “Hooking A Victim” shows ladies of the evening, in hoop skirts no less, plying their trade at Broadway and Canal Streets in New York City.
As for the theory your wife encountered, I love the phrase “In a book published at the time” because it zips right past the probability that said book had an actual title, making it at least theoretically possible to check the truth of the assertion that the rapacious factory owner admitted that his crummy wages forced his employees into prostitution. (Incidentally, such an admission at that time might well have landed the hypothetical swine in the clink, a fact that makes that almost certainly imaginary book even more unlikely.)
So while working in the textile industry has never been an easy or lucrative job, it’s not the source of “hooker.” But the wonderful world of lace and the like actually was the source for a similarly seedy word, “tawdry.” It all began with Queen Aethelthyrth, 7th century monarch of Northumbria, in what is now northern England. Aethelthyrth, also known as Audrey, was a kind and generous queen, famous for her good deeds and charity. She did, however, have a passion for fine scarves and necklaces in her youth, and when she was stricken with throat cancer late in life she regarded the disease as divine punishment for her youthful devotion to fancy neckwear. After her death, Audrey was canonized, and an annual festival was held in her memory where beautiful scarves were sold. The scarves were of the finest lace, and “St. Audrey’s Lace,” eventually slurred into “Tawdry Lace,” became the most desirable in Britain. Unfortunately, the quality of the lace was gradually cheapened by unscrupulous vendors until the word “tawdry,” once a tribute to a kind and selfless saint, became a synonym for something cheap and worthless.