The Grammarphobia Blog

Letting Gen. Hooker off the hook

Q: Please help! Is Fighting Joe Hooker, the Civil War general, responsible for the word “hooker”? I say he is (my source is Shelby Foote), but my girlfriend knows better (her source is Ann Landers) and she won’t budge.

A: Is Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a skirt-chasing Union commander who briefly led the Army of the Potomac, responsible for the word “hooker”?

Well, General Hooker’s hankering for prostitutes was so well known that he’s credited with inspiring the name of a red-light district in Washington, “Hooker’s Division.”

But, no, he didn’t give us the word “hooker.”

Shelby Foote was wrong when he wrote in volume two of The Civil War: A Narrative that “from this time on, the general’s surname entered the language as one of the many lowercase slang words for prostitute.”

As we say in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, streetwalkers were called “hookers” back in the 1830s, when the young general-to-be was still at West Point.

In 1835, the New York Transcript reported a courtroom exchange in which a female defendant complained that a witness had “called me a hooker.”

The word may ultimately come from the 16th century, when to “hook in” customers meant to draw them in, as with a hook. In those days, a “hook” or “hooker” meant a thief or a pickpocket.

Over the centuries, “hook” has appeared in many other figures of speech, including “hook, line, and sinker” (what a gullible sucker is likely to swallow) and “by hook or by crook” (a medieval expression for “by means fair or foul”).

And in recent years, of course, the innocent expression “hook up” has taken on a salacious meaning—to have casual sex.

By the way, Ann Landers (led astray by one of her readers) was initially wrong about the origin of the word “hooker.” A lot of other readers wrote in to let her know that General Hooker was off the hook.

She set the record straight in an Aug. 20, 1994, column: “I didn’t realize there were so many scholars who were interested in hookers.”

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