Georgian Life and Literature

The History of the Word "Prostitute"

The word word "prostitute" (referring to the offering of sensual indulgence) was first used in England in the late sixteenth / early seventeenth century. I think that during the 17th century, in England, the word "prostitute" was mainly used as a verb, and an adjective, but less often as a noun. Possibly that's because there was a greater Latin formality in our sources, which were more from the elite level. Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy, for instance, always uses the word as a verb, e.g.: "In that one temple of Venus a thousand whores did prostitute themselves." Donne and Dryden additionally use it as an adjective, though not, I think, a noun. Even in The London Bawd (1705) it still seems to be used only as a verb.

Pepys in his Diary for December 1667 says "the Keeper of Newgate hath at this day made his house the only nursery of rogues, prostitutes, pickpockets and thieves, in the world".

Swift in Gulliver's Travels (1726) uses a sort of compound noun: "prostitute female Yahoos", but otherwise Swift uses the word only as a verb or adjective. This is true also of Pope.

In you examine the Proceedings at the Old Bailey, you will find use of the word as a noun occasionally – for example "most impudent Prostitute" (trial in 1716), or "the prisoner was a common prostitute" (case of 1750), or "Rendezvous for about a Dozen notorious Whores and common Prostitutes" (case of 1750) – but surprisingly it isn't used as often as one might expect, at least not until the 1750s.

Nevertheless the term as a noun meaning "whore" was clearly established by the 1730s (when we have more lower-class sources available). In The Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735) we read "When he had any money he entertained a numerous train of the most abandoned women of the town, and had also intrigues at the same time with some of the highest rank of those prostitutes."

By the mid-18th century the use of the term as a noun meaning "whore" is certainly very well established. Smollett in Roderick Random (1748) refers to a woman "reduced to such an infamous and miserable way of life as that of a prostitute". In Boswell's Life of Johnson, Dr Johnson famously says "prostitutes are necessary to prevent the violent effects of appetite from violating the decent order of life; nay, should be permitted, in order to preserve the chastity of our wives and daughters." The police constable Saunders Welch, published "A Proposal to render effectual a Plan, To remove the Nuisance of Common Prostitutes from the Streets of this Metropolis" in 1758. In the Annual Register for 1760 I've come across phrases such as: "Anne Bell, an unhappy prostitute, though of reputable parents . . .". In the volume for 1763 a woman is described as "walked the streets in her mistress's best cloaths as a common prostitute".

My impression is that "prostitute" as a noun wasn't used very frequently in England prior to the notorious crime wave of the 1730s, when such things were very publicly discussed in newspapers and in "low-life" literature; that it became increasingly common through the 1750s; and that by the 1770s it was the word of choice.

In the eighteenth century, the word "prostitute" occurs in 42 trials at the Old Bailey up to 1800: From the first occurrence in 1685 through 1739, 4 trials (less than 10%); from 1740 through 1769, 13 (31%)); from 1770 through 1799, 25 (60%). The word "whore" occurs in a total of 163 trials at the Old Bailey up to 1800: From the first occurrence in 1679 through 1739, 66 trials (just over 40%); from 1730 through 1769, 61 (just over 37%); from 1770 through 1799, 36 (22%). In the vast majority of cases, "prostitute" occurs in the phrase "common prostitute", and it was almost always used to indicate how one earned money, whereas "whore" was also frequently used as simply a term of rebuke or contempt and was not objectively tied to one's profession. (It was also used in the phrase "son of a whore" [equivalent to "son of a bitch"], and thus was not objectively tied to gender.) So in some ways, we're not quite measuring like with like. Nevertheless we can conclude that the word "whore" was used in almost four times as many trials as the word "prostitute". This analysis counts only the number of trials; if we counted the total number of usages within the trials, it would be found that "whore" was used far more frequently than "prostitute". My division of the time-scale into three parts, suggests that the use of "prostitute" increases over the period, whereas the use of "whore" decreases over the period; this development is especially marked during the last third of the century, when (in terms of percentage of the total) "prostitute" is almost three times as likely to be used as "whore". Of course this is not a rigorous statistical analysis, but nevertheless it is suggestive of a change in usage towards the use of more "polite" terms.

Copyright © 2006, 2008, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. Some of my comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in July 2006, and on the History of Sexuality Discussion List in April 2008.

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