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My own understanding of the term camp followers was that it was synonymous with prostitutes who followed armies around plying their trade. However, according to Wikipedia:

Camp-follower is a term used to identify civilians and their children who follow armies. There are two common types of camp followers; first, the wives and children of soldiers, who follow their spouse or parent's army from place to place; the second type of camp followers have historically been informal army service providers, servicing soldiers needs whilst encamped, in particular selling goods or services that the military does not supply, these have included cooking, laundering, liquor, nursing, sexual services and sutlery.

ODO's BrE and AmE entries are both identical and similar to the above:

a civilian who works in or is attached to a military camp.

Webster, on the other hand, appears to concur with me:

a civilian (as a prostitute) who follows a military unit to attend or exploit military personnel

Wiktionary offers a fence-sitting definition albeit one leaning towards my side a wee bit:

A civilian who works for a military organization, often a prostitute.

None of the dictionary entries explicitly include the families of soldiers in their definitions.

So, are camp followers all the civilians employed in the service industry who follow armies around? Or has the term dwindled to only imply those who provide sexual services? I'd also appreciate any information on the evolution of the term, if applicable.

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I'm not clear exactly why you're asking this. Do you dispute the Wiktionary entry, which clearly indicates that not all "camp followers" are prostitutes? OED defines the term as A man or woman who follows or hangs on to a camp or army, without being in military service. It doesn't even mention prostitution - which is a common connotation, but by no means the only sense in which the term can be used. –  FumbleFingers Nov 9 '12 at 18:30
    
@FumbleFingers I'm asking because there's appears to be an ambiguity (which I want to avoid) in its present meaning. ODO/OED and Webster clearly differ in their definitions. –  coleopterist Nov 9 '12 at 18:33
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@Mitch: (from Wikipedia) "A sutler is a civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp or in quarters. The sutler sold wares from the back of a wagon or a temporary tent, allowing them to travel along with an army or to remote military outposts." –  J.R. Nov 10 '12 at 3:37
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Of course, this whole approach leaves aside the question of whether such people are followers of various kinds who happen to be camp. –  Barrie England Nov 10 '12 at 8:10
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Note the "as" in there: a civilian (as a prostitute) who... I interpret this as saying "such as" and that there may be other kinds of camp followers as well. –  GEdgar Nov 20 '12 at 20:02
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5 Answers 5

The OED defines it as ‘a man or woman who follows or hangs on to a camp or army, without being in military service.’ Camp followers are thus not necessarily prostitutes, but this citation form 1876 suggests they might be: Those unfortunates who are known under the euphemistic appellation of ‘camp followers’.

However, as FumbleFingers has shown, the term can be used in non-military contexts in which there is clearly no improper suggestion.

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If ‘camp followers’ was, according to the quoted line, a "euphemistic appellation," then the phrase certainly did not mean it (the unfortunates) by itself, as far as the reference is concerned. –  Kris Nov 10 '12 at 9:31
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The expression currently has two clusters of meaning--literal and metaphorical.

Your search has focussed on the literal meanings related to military encampments. In that sense, the term has been applied to both the families of the soldiers and commercial associates. The distinction between the two is not sharp: the widow of a fallen soldier far from home might be forced to become a laundress to support herself and her children. One category of commercial camp followers (among several others) provided sexual services.

It would be ridiculous to assert that skilled artisans such as fletchers or armorers were not camp followers (or that they were prostitutes). Your mistaken belief that there was only one category of service providers among camp followers reflects the modern trend of a professional army to create its own Ordnance Corps and similar units rather than outsourcing tasks as was common in times past.

As @FumbleFingers has noted, the metaphorical use of the expression now tends to be broad. Any attempt to limit the literal use as you suggest would be to grievously misrepresent many such uses.

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Circumstances alter cases, and obviously some armies would have their own fletchers, armorers, etc., on the payroll. But, Hey! I bet in the whole of human history there have been armies with their own "military harem". Anyway, you summarise the "marginal, borderline" possibilities nicely. –  FumbleFingers Nov 10 '12 at 3:39
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The Italian army in 1940 accompanied their armored division in North Africa with a fully motorized official brothel (history does not relate what rank the staff were accorded). Presumably these were camp followers in the broad sense but not the technical one, reversing the usual trend. –  TimLymington Nov 20 '12 at 22:08
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

As in my question, the following dictionary definitions suggest that the term camp follower has devolved into a derogatory term synonymous with prostitution.

Webster:

a civilian (as a prostitute) who follows a military unit to attend or exploit military personnel

Wiktionary offers a fence-sitting definition albeit one leaning towards the derogatory a wee bit:

A civilian who works for a military organization, often a prostitute.


While there are plenty of references in Google Books that only include prostitutes as a subset of camp followers, there are a number of others such as the ones below that either equate the two or suggest that they are commonly equated with each other.

From A to Z of Women in World History by Erika A Kuhlman, PH.D.:

The tradition of camp followers dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages (800–1300). Most camp followers were women who wanted to join their husbands in battle. Typically, camp followers performed wifely duties at camp, such as cooking meals, washing clothes, obtaining water supplies, and treating wounds. Generally, wives took care of their own families (they often brought their young children with them), not of the whole company. The term camp follower also represents the women who travelled with the military and worked as prostitutes.

From Women In Early America: Struggle, Survival, And Freedom In A New World by Dorothy A. Mays:

To modern ears, the term camp follower implies a derogatory connotation far from the actual experience of camp followers during the American Revolution.

From Social Disorganisation by Rajendra Kumar Sharma1:

Camp followers, in the broad sense, are simply prostitutes who gather and operate where large numbers of soldiers, and other servicemen are stationed, and who serve principally the sexual needs of those males, although civilians are seldom discriminated against.

From Perspectives on Sex Crime & Society by David W. Selfe, Vincent Burke:

Following emergence from the Dark Ages, and the commencement of feudalism in medieval Europe, prostitution once more began to thrive. This was seen especially in the rise of the so called 'camp followers'—large groups of prostitutes who travelled with pilgrims, went on Crusades and marched with a variety of armies cross Europe. These camp followers, like a macrocosm of the single prostitute, were fulfilling the functional needs of a variety of temporarily misplaced males.

From Sex in China: Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture by Fang Fu Ruan:

Other scholars suggest that institutionalized prostitution in China began in the Western Han dynasty, when the famous Emperor Wu (reigning 140–87 B.C.) recruited female camp followers for his armies; these women were called "ying-chi" ("camp harlots") (Chen, 1928; van Gulik, 1961).

From Encyclopedia of prostitution and sex work: A-N edited by Melissa Hope Ditmore:

"Hog ranch" is a term that was used particularly in Wyoming and parts of Colorado for combination saloons/dance halls/brothels serving military outposts in the 19th century. A limited number of women were permitted association with the daily workings of the camp, and most camp followers (prostitutes) were excluded from the post proper.

From Prostitution and Sex Work by Melissa Hope Ditmore:

Camp followers, including laundresses and seamstresses, typically sold sex or offered situations akin to serial marriage at the garrisons.

From Hotel Ritz: Comparing Mexican and US Street Prostitutes by David J. Bellis:

Various terms have been used to label commercial sex workers, including harlot, hooker (after the "camp followers" of General Joseph Hooker during the Civil War), prostitute, whore, stroller, and streetwalker.

From Maneuvers: Intl. Politics of Militarizing Women's Lives by Cynthia H. Enloe:

The commander's periodic purge required the discrediting of women who followed and serviced the troops, for it was far easier for commanders to send the women out of camp if they could be portrayed as rootless, promiscuous, parasitic, and generally a drag on the military's discipline and battle readiness. Thus camp follower was commonly equated with prostitute.

Ugo Pirro's 1958 novel is about a WWII Lieutenant Martino and his men who are assigned to lead a group of prostitutes through the mountainous ways to serve in brothels for Italian soldiers in Albania. It is titled "The Camp Followers":

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The book was adapted into a film in 1965 and released to English audiences as "The Camp Followers".

In summary, even if the term camp followers is not ubiquitously synonymous with prostitutes, there's a significant sub-section of the English-speaking world which does. The presence of entries in respectable dictionaries further confirms this fact.

1Curiously, the exact same passage also appears in a book titled Urban Sociology by an N. Jayapalan.

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I don't see a contradiction in the definitions you cite. "Camp followers" is a term that includes prostitutes, but not all camp followers are prostitutes by any means. Three of the four definitions you cite explicitly list persons other than prostitutes. The one that mentions only prostitutes says, "as a prostitute", that is, a prostitute is one kind of person who might be a camp follower. It is not saying that all camp followers are prostitutes: it is just giving one example.

Perhaps you are confused by the phrase "as an X"? That means "such as an X", not "equals an X".

Just PS, in general, I wouldn't take a dictionary definition to supercede an explanation from a text on the relevant subject. A problem with dictionary definitions is that in their effort to be concise they can sometimes be misleading.

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Camp followers provided nursing care for the wounded, laundry and mending for officers and troups, cooking for a group of soldiers and etc. The inference that all camp followers were prostitutes is laughable. Probably due to our own misunderstanding of a life where manual labour was unending and the importance of respectability greater than now.

When the army moved men often brought along their families (wives, children even parents). The British army had official numbers of people who were allowed to follow the regiment. For example when the regiment was in barrack accomodation the Sgt. was allowed to have a separated quarter for himself and his wife. This may have varied from regiment to regiment but certainly existed in North America. The idea that the Sgt's wife prostituted herself does not fit with the understanding of the type of man who would rise to Sgt. level.

There were certainly lots of people who followed armies both male and female. The fact that they appear only marginally in record of battle (e.g. the trader asked to carry messages to the troup opposite by Wellington) does not mean they are venal.

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No inference is made that all camp followers were prostitutes. The fact that a significant number of them were appears to have led to a kind of synecdoche (possibly only in certain parts of the world). You're welcome to address all the references and dictionary definitions in my answer. –  coleopterist Mar 25 '13 at 3:31
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