Gangsters have their molls, or female consorts. But where does the term moll come from?

Moll is a hypocoristic form of the name Mary. It’s more familiar to us today in the form Molly. Since the early 17th century the name Moll has been used as a general term for a woman, especially a prostitute. From Thomas Middleton’s 1604 The Ant and the Nightingale:

None of these common Molls neyther, but discontented and vnfortunate Gentlewomen.

The association with prostitutes may come from Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, who is often mistakenly believed to have been a prostitute. From Lewis Wager’s 1566 A New Enterlude Entreating of the Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene:

Conscience? how doth thy conscience litle Mall?

Or the connection with prostitution could simply have been from the fact that Mary and Moll were common names in 17th century England, much like John is used nowadays to refer to a prostitute’s customer. Middleton and Thomas Dekker write in their 1611 The Roaring Girle, or Moll Cut Purse:

Seb. Why is the name of Mol so fatall sir.
Alex. Many one sir, where suspect is entred, For seeke all London from one end to t’other, More whoores of that name, then of any ten other.

The subject of that book, Mary Frith, a.k.a. Moll Cut Purse, (c.1584-1659) was a notorious criminal and she could also have reinforced the association of Moll with disreputable women.

The sense of a female companion of a male criminal is a bit more recent, appearing in the 19th century. From John Badcock’s (a.k.a. Jon Bee) 1823 Slang. A Dictionary of the Turf:

Molls are the female companions of low thieves, at bed, board, and business.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

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