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Hooker redux

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.

September/October 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Before I forget (yeah, right), if you’ve been planning to subscribe at some point but forgetting, this would be an awesome point at which to remember to subscribe. Things are dicey, pickings are slim, and the cats are getting that “Maybe you’ve forgotten that we are, after all, predators” look in their eyes.

And now, a message from Edith Freedle:

Dear Internet: Please excuse Mister Detective’s absence for the past month. He has been sick and has been unable to do anything even remotely constructive. In early September he developed a horrible cold which turned out to be due to a gum infection which turned out to be due to a bad tooth. He has been to the dentist four times in the past month and has now had all of his teeth removed, as well as several random molars he had apparently borrowed from neighbors. The doctors say that if this doesn’t solve the problem he may have to have his ears cropped, although such a drastic step doesn’t actually have anything to do with his teeth (or the lack thereof). But they say it will make his hats fit better.

At the moment he is still under the effects of last week’s anæsthesia (at least we hope that’s it) and has been unable to do anything but post utter nonsense to something called “Tweeter,” which is apparently some kind of online club for weirdos. He is, of course, on a liquid diet, which we assumed meant gruel (he loved gruel as a child growing up in the workhouse). But he belligerently insists that the dentist specified gin and tonic (with limes to prevent scurvy). Since the dentist now forwards all our calls to a personal injury lawyer (evidently someone was bitten during last week’s appointment), we have been unable to verify this prescription and so must assume it’s true.

He is steadily, if slowly, improving, and he thinks he may be able to handle a little pizza next week (liquified in a blender, of course). We have tried to get him to do his homework and update this website, but he has built a fort out of the couch cushions and refuses to come out. This would be an acceptable state of affairs for the short term were it not for our well-founded suspicion that he is smoking some of his strange homemade cigarettes in there.

In any case, the poor little lad has suffered a month of pain and torment, so I hope that you will forgive his absence, and that this unfortunate turn of events will not affect his Google Rank and thus his chances of earning enough pennies from ads to pay the dentist bills and feed the cats, several of whom, apparently from hunger, have taken to licking his feet in a very creepy fashion.

If the other children on the internet would like to contribute, please tell them that, short of sending bales of actual cash, the most important, helpful and compassionate thing to do would be to subscribe to TWD-by-Email.

Yours sincerely,

Edith Freedle, Assistant to, and reluctant temporary caretaker of, Mr. Detective.

p.s. — Mr. Detective briefly emerged from his burrow a few moments ago, just long enough to insist that I warn his readers not to pay attention to the various political ads currently running on this site, which are in “no freaking way, shape or form” under his control. It was difficult to make out exactly what he said next as he seemed to be trying to hold his breath for some reason, but it sounded like “All those lying dirtbums belong in the Graybar Hotel.” Wherever that is.

And now, on with the show….



And where it flew, I have no clue.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if there was any relation between the word “quiver” as a holster for arrows and “quiver” as a shaking of the body from being scared or cold. — Graydon.

Whoa, synchronicity city, dude. I was just, this evening, watching a rerun of the Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon was playing Wii archery with Leonard. In the course of the game he mentioned that his father taught him to shoot a bow and now he has olfactory flashbacks of Kmart bourbon whenever he plays the Wii version. I don’t think Kmart actually sells bourbon, but I’ve never actually looked, so they may. Anyway, I was told I would like this show, and I sometimes do, but I have to watch it with closed captions on and the sound turned way down  because the laugh-track makes me seasick. Those people will laugh at anything.

This is all relevant because, as a nod to authenticity, Sheldon insisted that Leonard mime the action of pulling each imaginary arrow from an imaginary quiver slung across his back before each shot. Having been deeply into archery for a few months as a yoot, as they say in Brooklyn, I found this quite believable. I had a weirdly medieval suede quiver apparently designed to evoke fantasies of being a pint-sized Robin Hood, which I definitely wasn’t.

Of the two “quivers,” this is the older, a noun meaning “a case, usually tubular, for holding arrows.” It first appeared in English in the early 14th century, adapted from the Anglo-Norman “quivere,” from the Old French “quivre.” Further back are Germanic roots that also produced the English word “cocker,” which is now obsolete but in the early 8th century appeared meaning the same thing as “quiver” does today. In addition to its literal use in the world of archery, “quiver” is commonly used figuratively to mean “repository, resources or collection,” a metaphorical “arsenal,” or simply “bag of tricks” (“The remaining S&P companies … keep their profit outlook under wraps, and this is the information that analysts ultimately have in their quiver,” Barron’s, 2011).

“Quiver” in this “arrow case” sense can also be used as a verb meaning “to put arrows in a quiver,” but the other, more common, “quiver” verb is utterly unrelated to arrows. This “quiver” first appeared in English in the late 15th century meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, “to shake, tremble, or vibrate with a slight rapid motion … to make a movement of this kind as an expression of cold, rage, fear, etc.” The verb “to quiver” can also be used transitively to mean “to cause to vibrate or tremble” or, more often, “to produce in or by quivering; to utter or give out in a trembling voice” (OED). This “speak or sing with a shaky voice” sense covers “quivering” both from shock or fear (“‘No!’ quivered out poor Mary, scarcely conscious that she spoke,” 1849) or simply because your voice is not ready for prime  time (“The middle-aged, stubble-bearded piano player in the red jacket quivering out the ‘song’ from Philadelphia in a wimpy falsetto,” 1994).

The origin of the “shaking” kind of “quiver” is uncertain, but it’s likely that it arose as a variant of the somewhat earlier “to quaver,” also meaning “to tremble or quiver,” especially trilling in one’s voice or in playing a musical instrument (“He quavers in his musical Aires melodiously,” 1665). “Quaver” is based on the verb “to quave,” dating to the 13th century and meaning, predictably, “to shake or quake.” At this point the trail runs cold, and the origin of “quave” is a mystery, although it may be related in a remote, foggy fashion to the verb “to quake,” which would make sense.