Pull up a chair, my little dears, and I’m going to tell you a sad tale of fallen words, a story about how little dears – or should I say words for ‘little’ and for ‘dear’ – started out lovely and beloved and ended up scorned and scornful.
Once upon a time, a really long time ago, there was a language we now call Proto-Indo-European. It was spoken by people who were probably nomadic herders in the region of Crimea, but we don’t altogether know for sure. What we have reconstructed of their language consists of various roots that were arrived at through Sherlock Holmesing words in different modern languages back through expectable sound and meaning changes: if these several words with similar sounds and similar meanings all come from the same root, it is most likely that that root would have been…
One of these roots was *peh₂w- (the asterisk indicates that it’s reconstructed, not directly attested). It meant ‘little’ or ‘few’ or ‘smallness’. It spawned a number of words, including Latin paucus (whence English paucity), parvus and pauper (related to poor, pauper, and poverty), pupa (as familiar to entomologists as to etymologists), and puer, which meant ‘child’ and is the source of puerile, which is what some people think swearwords are.
Puer in its turn gave birth to putus ‘boy’ and puta ‘girl’. And puta gave rise to… well, puta, a word in Asturian, Catalan, Corsican, Galician, Papiamentu, Portuguese, and Spanish (and borrowed into Basque, Cebuano, and Georgian, and probably some others too) for ‘whore’. French pute and putain and Italian puttana also come from the same source and mean the same thing.
That was a nasty, brutish, and short trip, wasn’t it? Just as some kinds of people refer to “girls” and mean female sex workers, this word for ‘girl’ has gone directly to mean a female sex worker – and, because of social stigmatization of that line of work, it has become one of the nastiest insults in some of these languages (and not suited for polite company in any of them). It’s even become an expletive interjection in some of them – in French, you can say “Putain!” if you bark your shin on a bedpost (and if it really hurts, or if you broke the bedpost, you can say “Putain de bordel de merde!” – that means ‘whore of brothel of shit’).
Meanwhile, back in Proto-Indo-European, there was another root, *keh₂-, which meant ‘desire’ or ‘wish’. It moved on in several directions. In Proto-Indo-Iranian, it gave rise to a set of words meaning ‘love’ or ‘take pleasure in’, notably Sanskrit cánas ‘delight, satisfaction’, as well as words in Persian and Georgian for plane trees and poplars (which, I guess, were just plain popular with them); it also gave rise to a set meaning ‘wish, desire’, notably Sansrit kā́ma ‘love, pleasure, desire’, as in Kama Sutra. Down another branch it gave rise to Latvian kārs ‘craving, covetous’ and to a set of words in the Celtic languages meaning ‘dear’ or ‘friend’, including modern Irish cara. It also gave rise to Latin carus ‘dear’, which is the source of such words as French chéri(e) and English charity. And it also gave rise to Proto-Slavic *kury and to Germanic *hōraz, *hōrǭ, and *hōrą. Let me look at *kury first.
The meaning of *kury foretells the sense of its descendants in all of the Slavic languages: ‘whore’. Throughout the Slavic world, one of the worst words you can use – varying in intensity and scope of usage from language to language – is kurva, spelled that way in Bosnian, Croatian, Czech, and Slovak (and borrowed into Hungarian, which is not a Slavic language), as kurwa in Polish, as kurba in Slovenian, as курва (which is kurva in Cyrillic) in Bulgarian, Macedonian, Russian, Serbian, and Ukrainian, and as ку́рва in Belarusian, and borrowed as curvă and kurvë, (dis)respectively, into Romanian and Albanian (which are not Slavic languages).
That’s quite a curve, isn’t it! It was a word for ‘dear’ and ‘love’ and ‘desire’ and even ‘friend’, and then with desire came scorn, spite, loathing, and abuse.
But the Slavic sphere isn’t the only place where that change took place. Remember the Germanic cousins, *hōraz, *hōrǭ, and *hōrą? They referred to adulterers and adultery. Guess what they became. Come on, guess guess guess.
Yes. They grew into Afrikaans, Dutch, Frisian, and Luxembourgish hoer, Swedish hora, Icelandic hóra, Norwegian hore, German Hure, and English whore – and were borrowed into Estonian as hoor and into Finnish as huora. It is true that these words do not have quite as broad an expletive use as we see with kurva or puta, but we know perfectly well how freighted and rude the word whore is, and the same holds in the other Germanic languages too.
These are not the only words for prostitutes in these languages, of course (English has quite a few that should come to mind without too much effort, prostitute being one). Some of the others are just as weaponized, too. But this full family of some of the most vicious swears and insults in many European languages trace back to just two roots, both of which are quite nice and pleasant and endearing in their origins.
Which goes to show us something. We are, I think, all familiar with the moralistic trope of the “fallen woman”: someone who starts as a “nice” girl and, through a turn of fate (which, if we’re honest, inevitably involves a male abuser – or several – who somehow never suffer like these women do), becomes permanently smirched with immorality, a taint that, once acquired, cannot be undone. That heavy hand of unforgiving patriarchal morality is nasty cultural garbage, of course, but today’s lesson is that we can see it replicated even in the course of meaning change of words. Words for our dear little ones, and for our friends, and for charity and delight, with a little slip of shift became words for people whose sexual morality was scorned (even by those who benefited from it), and from there they continued inescapably into the cesspit like a character in some English novel of a century or two ago. While some kinds of words can benefit from an improvement in the tone of their sense (for example, nice traces back to Latin nescius, ‘ignorant’), in our cultures we have a tradition (through hypocrisy, insecurity, and brutal prejudicial ideology) of being most unforgiving in certain matters.
This barely begins to address the thorny and twisted social attitudes towards sex work, of course – it’s just an insight into etymology and the effects of ideology on it. For those who want to read more about the broad social issues, I’ve collected a reading list on the past and present of sex work in our cultures, thanks to helpful and knowledgeable people on Twitter:
- Heather Berg (@DrHeatherBerg) recommended Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body by Shannon Bell, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith (also recommended by Mistress Snow, PhD, @MistressSnowPhD), and Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant (also recommended by Lauren Seiling, @Lauren_Seiling)
- Dr Lynzi Armstrong (@DrLynziA) recommended Whores in History by Nickie Roberts, Women and Prostitution: A Social History by Bonnie Bullough and Vern Bullough, Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Laura K. McClure, and books by Judith Walkowitz: Prostitution and Victorian Society, City of Dreadful Delight, and Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London
- Jessie Sage (@sapiotextual) let me know about the Sex Work and Sex Workers Syllabus put together by PJ Sage (@peejsage): https://peepshowmedia.com/2020/05/08/sex-work-and-sex-workers-syllabus/
- Lauren Kiley (@xoxoLaurenKiley) let me know about several mentioned by Suprihmbé (@thotscholar) in https://www.onthedresserpodcast.com/episodes/2019/2/28/extended-interview-thotscholar
I should also say that my primary source for the Proto-Indo-European etymological tracings is Wiktionary, which is really quite a good resource.