A Flourish of Strumpets
The author of an old dissertation (a Swiss researcher named Margrit Keller) examined British dialectal dictionaries and found about 600 words and phrases meaning “girl” and “woman.” Most of them are derogatory and harp on a few familiar notes: slovenly, lazy, garrulous, flighty, ugly, and too accessible for men’s pleasures. One or two are interesting to a linguist. For example, Keller’s material confirms the findings of the Oxford English Dictionary that faggot acquired its sexual connotations late (possibly in American English) and that in dialects it can refer to all kinds of things and persons considered worthless. Flisk-ma-hoy is reminiscent of hobble-de-hoy and of some other words with -ma- in the middle. Occasionally a tautological compound (that is, a word, whose both elements have the same meaning) turns up, for instance, lass-quean. Quean, once a neutral synonym of woman, has undergone a degradation of meaning, and, if it is ever used today, its only sense is “whore.” But in dialects that degradation has not occurred, and lass-quean amounts to “girl-girl.” Trollops (singular!) coexists with strollops—a common case of a reinforcing pseudo-prefix s. Every now and then (but not too often) one detects a whiff of humor in those coinages: consider swammocks / clammocks, along with hommocks / flummox (“slattern”), and titty-ups.
Strumpet has also been recorded in dialects. It is a word of much-disputed etymology, and its history sheds a sidelight on the formation of offensive names for women. The pun a flourish of strumpets must have been worn threadbare long before Shakespeare’s time. The first attestation of the word in the OED dates to 1327. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about strumpet is that in Huntingdonshire it means “fat, hearty child,” but the significance of this fact is open to question. A crude, insulting word (“whore, slut”) would probably not have developed into a jocular term of endearment, but ever since 1327 “prostitute” has been the only attested meaning of “strumpet” in English texts. The history of faggot is different: one can observe its history by reading old books and listening to living vernacular speech. The Huntingdonshire example is unique (I am almost tempted to follow my students’ example and say: very unique).
Our earliest etymologists, from the beginning of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th, derived strumpet from Classical Greek, Irish, and French, though its most durable etymology is based on the idea that the ignoble English word goes back to Latin stuprum “disgrace, licentiousness, whoredom,” -et being a suffix. Stuprum has no m in the middle, and its r stands after, rather than before, the vowel. Neither circumstance is fatal for the derivation of strumpet from stuprum, for both processes (the intrusion of m or n in the root and metathesis, that is, a vowel and r playing leapfrog) are common. Yet every additional sound change we have to posit makes the reconstruction slightly less persuasive. Occam’s razor applies to etymology as it does to any other mental operation: the fewer additional steps, the better. It would be good to do without intrusive m and metathesis.
A look at the other Germanic languages reveals the existence of several words resembling strumpet, though without -et. Low (= northern) German has strump “stocking” (the Standard German form is Strumpf). Its original meaning was “stub, stump,” which later yielded “trouser leg” and “stocking.” Close enough is German Strunze “slattern”; in medieval texts strunze meant “stump.” Strunze is probably related to the German verb strunzen “gad about, loaf,” a cognate of English (dialectal) strunt and its n-less synonym strut. The original Strunze ~ strumpet seems to have been in the habit of idle walking about (loafing) and either stumbled a lot or was inelegant as a stump. In the beginning, this word may have referred to both men and women. For example, harlot started as “vagabond, rascal, low fellow.” Likewise, Swiss German Strubel means “unpolished person of either sex.” Girles, the Middle English plural of girl, was a collective noun for “boys and girls; young people.” But the evidence, if we disregard the enigmatic Huntingdonshire case, does not bear out this suggestion.
In Icelandic, several words sound like strump and strunt and designate vessels of all sorts. Possibly, their meaning is not incompatible with “stump.” One example will suffice: Icel. strympa “dipper, tall or pointed hat; bucket; building with a cone-shaped roof; virago, big woman.” The root of Engl. strumpet, German Strunze, and Icelandic strympa is almost certainly Germanic and has nothing to do with Latin stuprum. But in English a native whore was upgraded to a classy prostitute. The only thing needed for her advancement was a Romance diminutive suffix. It is amazing how much glamour such a tiny thing can emanate. Rabbit, like strumpet, also has a native (Germanic) root, but French aristocrats were fond of consuming rabbits, especially when the animals were young, and language did not hesitate to oblige them. The same suffix was pressed into service, and lo and behold, rabbit came to look like a French word. This circumstance elevated the humble cony’s status and made the critter more genteel and perhaps even more palatable. The world can go round without words, but words rule it.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”