The origin of this word for a prostitute is unknown. But while we don’t know the origin for sure, there are a couple likely explanations, the most likely being that it is simply a reference to the prostitute’s ability to snare, or hook, clients. And we do know for sure that the story of hooker being an eponym for a Civil War general is false.
The earliest appearance of the word is in Norman E. Eliason’s Tarheel Talk in a citation 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.1
Some other possible origins are that it is a reference to the prostitute making some money on the side by stealing from the clients. Hooker is an old term for thief. From Thomas Harman’s 1567 A Caueat or Warening For Commen Cursetors, Vulgarely Called Vagabones:
These hokers, or Angglers, be peryllous and most wicked knaues.2
Another is that hooker is also a slang term for a boat, from the Dutch hoecker-schip. From Simon Smith’s 1641 A Narrative of the Royal Fishings of Great Britain and Ireland:
A Hooker or Wellboat.3
This slang term for a ship could have gone the way of tramp, another name for a boat that is applied to women of loose morals.
Finally, a less likely, but still possible explanation was proffered early in the word’s history by John Russell Bartlett in the 1859 edition of his Dictionary of Americanisms:
Hooker. A resident of the Hook, i.e. a strumpet, a sailor’s trull. So called from the number of houses of ill-fame frequented by sailors at the Hook (i.e., Corlear’s Hook) in the city of New York.4
This is an early speculation, but it has no real evidence to support it.
And we can quickly dispense with the old chestnut that hooker comes from Joseph Hooker, who briefly commanded the Army of the Potomac in 1863. “Fighting Joe” was fond of earthly pleasures. Charles Francis Adams, grandson and great-grandson to the presidents, describes his headquarters:
During the winter (1862-63), when Hooker was in command, I can say from personal knowledge and experience, that the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac was a place where no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go. It was a combination of barroom and brothel.5
But as we have seen, the word was in use in North Carolina some 18 years before Hooker took command of the Union Army. Hooker and his camp followers may have helped popularize the word, but he is not its source.
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 145.
3OED2, hooker2, <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50107819>.
4HDAS, v. 2, H-O, 145.
5Charles Francis Adams, Charles Francis Adams, 1835-1915: An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), 161.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton