March 29, 2016

Fighting Joe Hooker and His Women

Lots of interesting and historic things have their origin in Massachusetts. For example, the first public library in America was the Boston Public Library, and the first American college was Harvard.

But perhaps some less savory things have their origin here as well. For example, does the word "hooker" have its origin in the Bay State?

Prostitution is often referred to as the world's oldest profession, and has a very long history. There were prostitutes long before Massachusetts was ever founded, and there still will be when this Commonwealth is gone and forgotten. However, I'm concerned not with the origin of the practice, but rather with the origin of the word hooker to describe its practitioners.

One popular story claims the term originated with General Joseph Hooker. Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts in the year 1814. Hooker came from a prominent family and entered the United States Military Academy in 1837. After graduating Hooker had a distinguished career, fighting against the Seminoles in Florida and receiving several promotions during the Mexican-American War.

After these initial successes it seemed like Hooker's career might be short-lived, though. He retired in 1858 after testifying against his former commanding officer during a trial. Many of his former colleagues resented his testimony, and after leaving the Army he worked as a farmer in California, a career at which he was only modestly successful. He seemed to be more successful at picking up bad habits. During the Mexican-American War he had developed a reputation as a lady's man, and now as a farmer he also spent much of his time drinking and gambling.

General Joseph Hooker (b.1814, d.1879)

When the Civil War broke out Hooker asked to re-enlist. He was refused at first, but the Union Army finally relented and assigned him the rank of brigadier general. Overall Hooker acquitted himself honorably, winning some key battles and losing others. During the war he also got the nickname "Fighting Joe Hooker," although not necessarily for his prowess on the battlefield. He got the nickname when a newspaper omitted a dash in their headline. The headline should have read "Fighting - Joe Hooker Attacks Rebels" but was mistakenly published as "Fighting Joe Hooker Attacks Rebels."

Despite the belligerent nickname and a string of battlefield successes, Hooker still maintained a reputation for heavy drinking, gambling, and womanizing. Was it all just bad PR? Maybe, but there may have been truth behind it as well.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the word "hooker" is derived from General Hooker.  The theory is that Hooker and his soldiers liked to frequent prostitutes, and even encouraged them to set up shop near their encampment.

This story appears in quite a few places, including Bruce Gellerman and Erik Sherman's 2010 book Boston Curiosities, which mentions it when describing a statue of Hooker that stands in front of the State House. It's even said that an area in Washington D.C. known during the Civil War for its prostitutes earned the nickname Hooker's Division because Fighting Joe spent so much time there.

It's a great story and I wish it were true, but unfortunately it isn't. Although Americans usually use the word hooker as a term for a prostitute, it actually has a very long history as a word used to describe criminals. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first used in 1567 to describe a thief who snatched bags using a hook. How literal!

These hookers or anglers be most perilous knaves! Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567)

Hooker later was used to describe any thief, but particularly one who stole watches. One theory is that since hooker was used to describe thieves it gradually became attached to prostitutes, who engage in a different form of criminal activity. It may also describe their ability to hook or entice clients.

Another theory traces the term's origin to Corlear's Hook, a section of New York City that had a lot of brothels, but I don't think linguists put much stock in that one.

Regardless of which of these two theories is the right one, unfortunately for Massachusetts this is one thing that didn't start here. Fighting Joe Hooker's unsavory reputation didn't give rise to the term hooker. The word hooker has been used to describe prostitutes since at least 1845, long before Hooker came to national prominence. We lost this one, but I guess we'll just have to find solace in the Boston Public Library and Harvard!

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