What are the indigenous English words for a prostitute?

Prostitution is referred to as the oldest profession, but the English word “prostitute” is a borrowing that started being used in the English language around 1600. I would like to know what the prostitutes were most commonly called in Britain before.

My question is this: What are the main original English words or short expressions for women who regularly engage in sexual activity for payment?

Please kindly note that my question is not about women who have many casual sexual encounters or relationships just for fun. My question is about making money in this way.

Please also kindly note that my question is not about being financially supported or provided for by a lover. My question is about selling sex to different customers and taking money for individual sex sessions.

Also, my question is not about old words that recently became a slang or euphemistic word for a prostitute, like “escort” or “hooker.” I am looking for words that were used as most standard words for a prostitute before the word “prostitute” came into existence in the English language.

Whether a word survived or got extinct is irrelevant. What is important is whether the word was among the most commonly used words for a prostitute before ~1600.

My question is not strictly limited to words of English origin, although my primary interest is about them. At any rate, only those borrowed words qualify that were borrowed well before the word “prostitute” was.

I know the word “whore,” but my impression is that it is very derogatory, so I especially want to learn nice English words, similar to 遊女 (woman of pleasure), which pay more respect to the oldest profession than “whore” does.

I did my own research, but was largely unsuccessful. A very interesting Wikipedia article, entitled “Prostitution in the United Kingdom,” says that prostitutes were licensed in Britain as early as 1161, but does not say what the prostitutes were commonly called at that time in everyday communications and in legislative acts. The word “courtesan” was borrowed at about the same time when the word “prostitute” was. Apart from the word “courtesan,” the Oxford dictionary lists the following archaic words synonymous to “prostitute”:

strumpet, harlot, trollop, wanton, woman of ill repute, lady of pleasure, Cyprian, doxy, drab, quean, trull, wench

Opening the definitions of these words, I did not find much beyond simple statements that the word is an archaic word for a prostitute, so it is unclear which of these words were the most commonly used and what their usage was (i.e., whether it was a legal term, a common neutral word for the profession, a nice or neutral slang word, or a derogatory slang word). Using Google Books Ngram Viewer to check the above words does not seem to be a useful idea, because the time period in question ends about 1600. There might also be extinct words that are not included in the Oxford dictionary but were commonly used in the past.

What I want is to learn what the prostitutes were most commonly called in everyday communications and official documents before 1600, i.e., just a short list of 1-3 words or so with remarks about the usage.


The only three Old English words I know referring to prostitutes are meretrix (a direct borrowing from Latin), for-legis (and similar forms, though they tend to also mean adulterer and rarely survived Old English), and miltestre (possibly based on meretrix, which makes it into the Middle English Dictionary as prostitute). All tend to appear in religious writing.

After that, the Oxford English Dictionary has whore (from about 1100, spelled without the [w] (ex. hore, hour) until the 14th century), and the Middle English Dictionary has gigelot and nyhtwerm. Again, these tend to appear in either Biblical or negative contexts in the sources I know of. For example, here’s one example of gigelot:

Furmest in boure

were boses ybroht;

Levedis to honoure

ichot he were wroht;

Vch gigelot wol loure

bote he hem habbe soht,

Such schrewe fol soure

ant duere hit hath aboht

In helle … (lines 23-31)

[First into the chamber were brought hair buns over cheeks; to honor ladies I know they were made; every courtesan will scowl unless she has obtained them. This shrew very bitterly and dearly has bought it in hell.]

So even in this example, gigelot is being used to chastise women for pride in their dress.

Source : Link , Question Author : Mitsuko , Answer Author : TaliesinMerlin

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