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Harlots all over the place

This is a continuation of the previous post (October 14, 2020), an ultimate dig at harlots and their likes. The story I quoted a week ago connected harlot with the name of William the Conqueror’s mother. It goes back to the 1570s, and, as the OED noted in its Second Edition, such a conjecture was possible because at that time, no one had access to the full history of the word in question. Harlot turned up in English texts in the thirteenth century, acquired its present-day sense (“prostitute”) about two hundred years later, and ousted all the previous ones. Those “previous ones” are worthy of recording: “vagabond, rascal, low fellow,” “itinerant jester” (do you remember the story of Harlequin? If you don’t, look for it in this blog!), “churl,” “husbandman,” “male servant, drudge,” “fellow,” and only then “whore.” In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “He [the Summoner] was a gentil harlot and a kynde; a bettre felawe scholde men noght fynde.”

Chaucer’s summoner, a gentil harlot and a kynde.

The progression of senses makes it clear that an attempt to ascribe to the etymon of harlot the meaning “bad woman” should not even be considered. It may seem odd that in the beginning harlot referred to both men and women. Yet we are not dealing with a unique case. I would like to refer our readers to the post for February 7, 2007 (“The flourish of strumpets”). In it, I mentioned the history of girl (the word once designated a child of either sex) and of strumpet: in Huntingdonshire (a non-metropolitan district in Cambridgeshire, England), strumpet means “a fat, hearty child.” If strumpet traces to some word denoting a vessel or a stump (see the post), a connection with “an unwieldy object” as starting point can be made out (but whence “whore, slut”?) and if “loafer” is the beginning of the story, then why “fat child”? It would be tempting to reconstruct a string from “stump” to “fat child” to “fat woman” (women and children is a familiar phrase; the two often go together in all kinds of reports) and, finally, to “loose woman,” the last step in what specialists in historical semantics call the deterioration of meaning, a process especially common in the words denoting women (whore, for instance, goes back to a word for “darling”).

A Huntingdonshire strumpet, “a fat, hearty child.”  (Image by Alaina Browne)

Returning to harlot, we can state as fact that the word, when it emerged, could have positive connotations but was more often applied to disreputable persons (ready to sell their questionable services?), to men rather than women; that later the feature “disreputable” won over, and the term of abuse stuck to women. Like Harlequin, harlot had close, almost identical cognates in Romance: Old French harlot ~  herlot “playful (!) young fellow; knave, vagabond”; Italian arlotto ”vagabond, beggar; fool; glutton”; Old Portuguese arlotar “to go about begging” (thus, the emphasis was on roaming people without a definite occupation), and Old Spanish arlote ~ alrote “lazy.” The attested Middle English forms were the same as in Old French.

Old dictionaries had no clue to the etymology of harlot. George Hickes, an influential grammarian, active in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, traced harlot to whorelet. Samuel Johnson connected the word with the name of King William’s mother. For a long time, especially popular was the idea that the English word goes back to Welsh herlawd “stripling” or herlodes “hoyden,” from her “to push; challenge” and llawd “lad.” Not only Noah Webster thought so but also Hensleigh Wedgwood, Walter W. Skeat’s predecessor and one-time rival. The Welsh words were borrowed from English, and, in any case, what kind of derivation is harlot “push-lad”?

The other suggested etymons of harlot (possibly there are others that escaped my attention) are Latin helluo “glutton,” Latin ardelio or ardalio “loafer” (a word known only from some glosses), presumably, from Greek árdalos “dirty” (thus, from ardliotto to ardlotto and arlotto), English hire (suggested by an eminent member of the Philological Society as late as 1862), and Old High German harl, a side form of karl “man.” Harl ~ karl turned up in a work by C. A. F. Mahn. In one of my posts on harlequin, I mentioned that Mahn had written a book on that word. This was a mistake. In summer, the library at the University of Minnesota where I teach was closed. It is now open, and I have access to my carrel; a copy of the book I needed stands in it. Mahn, as I immediately discovered, wrote a book titled Etymologische Untersuchungen (“Studies in Etymology”); Harlequin and harlot are indeed discussed in it. I have trouble with Mahn’s harl ~ karl. Old Germanic names beginning with Hari– (referring to “army” of course) did vary in spelling with Chari, but karl never had a variant with h-.

Walter W. Skeat, still our foremost authority on the origin of English words, also tried to connect harlot with karl, but the first consonant ruins his hypothesis. More about him below. The original OED refrained from guesswork, and so did The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. But since the days of the OED, great progress has been made in this area, especially thanks to Leo Spitzer’s 1944 paper and our knowledge of the origin of Harlequin.

The Whore of Babylon, the proto-harlot. (Image by Henri-Marcel Magne)

It is probable (even highly probable) that Harlequin and harlot have the same Germanic root and that the original harlot was either a member of the crowd known as the Wild Hunt or someone who sponged off troops. This idea occurred to Ernest Weekley. He glossed harlot as originally meaning “camp follower.” The rest is less clear, because we do not know whether the suffix in harlot is –ot or –lot. And it is indeed a suffix. Weekley’s attempt to connect –lot with German Lotter-, “as in Lotterbube, synonymous with harlot in its earliest sense, cognate with Anglo-Saxon [Old English] loddere ‘beggar, wastrel’” does not inspire confidence: the form harlot(t)er never existed.

If the suffix is –ot, then harlot acquired it in France. Such was Spitzer’s opinion. Like Harlequin, harlot, after many peregrinations, returned to English from French. Adding a French suffix to a Germanic word occurred many times. Strumpet offers a good parallel: the root strump– is Germanic, while the suffix –et is French. One can imagine that a Romance suffix turned a Germanic “whore” into a classy “prostitute.” Skeat, in the last full edition of his etymological dictionary, cited the Dutch suffix –lot. It is therefore possible that the root was har– “army” and that it originally referred to a soldier of the lowest rank or someone who followed the troops for whatever reasons. In any case, the syllable –ot ~ -lot was a diminutive suffix.

In Middle English, the word giglot had some currency. It, too, denoted a prostitute and some sort of jester. Gig and jig (sound-imitative? Sound symbolic?) aroused associations with mean pursuits. Apparently, –lot (from Dutch?) meant nothing to English speakers, and giglot became giglet, as though some gig or giggler with a diminutive suffix, as in kinglet or rivulet. I am inclined to think that harlot is har– + –lot, rather than harl– + –ot. Any medieval army was followed by hordes of parasites: prostitutes, disreputable vendors, entertainers, and so forth. They were called harlots, giglots, and what not. I don’t think anyone has ever compared harlot and giglot. Yet this comparison may be of some use.

As a postscript, I may mention harridan “a belligerent old woman; a termagant,” an item of seventeenth-century cant, presumably an alteration of French haridelle “old jade.” This derivation is possible, though haridelle is a word of unknown origin. Are we dealing with another piece of army slang, another despicable creature (an old nag, an old hag), whose name contains a Germanic root (har-) and a Romance diminutive suffix, whatever the middle part –id– may mean?

This is where my Wild Hunt ends, at least for a while. Its aftermath will depend on the readers’ questions and comments.


Feature image by Vince Veras

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