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Why Do We Say That?

March 2023
2min read



This past October the residents of Hooker Lane, in the tony Cos Cob section of Greenwich, Connecticut, made headlines when 9 of the 11 homeowners on the 1,580-foot-long dead end—or “cul-de-sac,” in real estate-ese—petitioned the town’s board of selectmen to change the name of their street to Stonebrook Lane.

A 1950 book depicts a well-dressed courtesan.

This past October the residents of Hooker Lane, in the tony Cos Cob section of Greenwich, Connecticut, made headlines when 9 of the 11 homeowners on the 1,580-foot-long dead end—or “cul-de-sac,” in real estate-ese—petitioned the town’s board of selectmen to change the name of their street to Stonebrook Lane.

Hooker is a good old Connecticut family name, though the name of the lane apparently came from the maiden name of the wife of the man who developed the area in the 1960s rather than from Rev. Thomas Hooker, a founder of Hartford in 1636. But Hooker Lane’s residents got tired of the snickering that generally greeted them whenever they had to give anyone their address. “‘You live on Prostitute Street,’ that’s typical,” 12-year-old Brendan O’Connor told The New York Times .

The sense of hooker as “prostitute” often has been associated with Gen. Joseph (“Fighting Joe”) Hooker, who commanded the Army of the Potomac for five months in 1863. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., grandson of one President and great-grandson of another, reinforced this notion when he described Hooker’s headquarters as “a place where no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go … a combination of bar-room and brothel.” Citing this quote, Shelby Foote gave Fighting Joe credit for the word’s sexual sense in The Civil War: A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963), the second of his three-volume history of the conflict.

The sexual meaning of hooker predates the Civil War, however. John Russell Bartlett defined hooker as “a strumpet, a sailor’s trull” in the 1859 edition of his Dictionary of Americanisms . Still earlier is a bit of man-to-man advice from 1845: “If he comes by way of Norfolk, he will find any number of pretty Hookers in the Brick row not far from French’s hotel” (quoted in Norman E. Eliason’s Tarheel Talk: An Historical Study of the English Language in North Carolina , published in 1956).

This leaves the term’s origin a bit of a mystery. Bartlett thought it came from Corlears Hook, a section of New York City’s Lower East Side noted for “houses of ill-fame frequented by sailors.” Others guess that it is a spinoff from the British slang use of hooker to refer either to a petty thief (also called an angler ) who used a stick with a hook to sneak goods away from their owners or to a boat (from the Dutch hoecker-schip ), originally a fishing vessel and later any boat. Most likely, though, is that it derives from the way prostitutes attract clients. Henry Mayhew quoted an English streetwalker in 1857: “I’ve hooked many a man by showing him an ankle on a wet day” ( London Labour and the London Poor ).

But General Hooker does not get away scot-free. Today the section of Washington, D.C., bounded by Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Fifteenth Street NW is called the Federal Triangle (the huge Ronald Reagan federal office building is located there). In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, however, this was the capital’s red-light district, and it was known as Hooker’s Division on account of the many prostitutes who lived and worked in what census records of 1870 and 1880 listed as “female boarding houses.”

So Hooker may not have been directly responsible for hooker , but he certainly helped popularize it.

—Hugh Rawson

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