- How the word hooker came to mean "prostitute" has never been satisfactorily established. Willard R. Espy says that the word harlot is descended from Old German Hari, "army," and Lot, "loiterer," a camp follower. But hooker, some believe, evolved because British ships used to sail to the Hook of Holland. Ladies of the night, and perhaps of the day, too, lay in wait (or, as Espy put it, "stood in wait, and lay afterward") to please their customers. Some authorities subscribe to the belief that a hooker was so called because she hooked her curved parasol handle into the arm of male passersby.John Ciardi says the word arose as a bit of British slang. London Labour and London Poor, published in four volumes (1851-1862) in London by Henry Mayhew, who also published the magazine Punch, reported this statement: "We hooks a white collar (a clergyman) now and then," and from another, "I've hooked many a man by showing an ankle on a wet day." Was this an analogy to hooking a fish? Or did the word come from a notorious New York City waterfront neighborhood called "Hook," where vice was known to be rampant?The belief that describing a lady of pleasure as a hooker arose because of "Fighting Joe," a Union general who put the red-light district in Washington off limits, is considered by most wordsmiths to be a case of folk etymology. The general's name was Joseph Hooker, but that is as far as the connection goes. Furthermore, William Morris confirmed that "hooker" appeared in print at least once before the Civil War, in 1859. Morris decided to write to his friend Bruce Catton, one of the nation's foremost authorities on the Civil War. Morris noted that General Hooker's reputation was not of the highest and quoted Charles Francis Adams, Jr., as calling him a "man of blemished character . . . whose headquarters was a place to which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go—a combination of barroom and brothel." Here is Catton's comment:That business about Joe Hooker and the soiled doves of Civil War Washington pops up every so often. I agree with you that the term "hooker" did not originate during the Civil War, but it certainly became popular then. During these war years, Washington developed a large and segregated district—the word "segregated" had a different meaning as used then—somewhere south of Constitution Avenue. This became known as Hooker's Division in tribute to the proclivities of General Hooker and the name has stuck ever since.
Dictionary of eponyms. Morton S. Freeman. 2013.