A stalker is commonly referred to as:

  • a person who harasses another person, as a former lover, a famous person, etc., in an aggressive, often threatening and illegal manner: Hollywood stars often have security guards to keep dangerous stalkers at bay. (dictionary.reference.com)

Stalker with the above connotation is a relatively recent term:

  • Meaning "harass obsessively" first recorded 1991, probably from "pursue stealthily," Old English -stealcian, as in bestealcian "to steal along, walk warily," (etymonline)

The fact that the term usage is quite recent may be the consequence of a considerable increase of illegal harassment in the last couple of decades. I can imagine that stalkers, unluckily, were around well before 1991.


What was the common term used to refer to them or to their 'activity' before the term came into use presumably replacing previous definitions?

Were the terms stalker/stalking coined in a legal context (see the passing of anti-stalking laws below) or is there evidence that they were used in everyday language first?


As shown by @kristina Lopez California was the first State to pass anti-stalking laws:

  • California's stalking laws are most commonly associated with celebrity cases. In fact, celebrity stalking is what prompted the California Legislature to enact anti-stalking laws back in 1990.

  • The first was the repeated stabbing of actress Theresa Saldana. The second was the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer. In both cases, the defendants were obsessed fans who stalked the actresses. As a result of these cases,5 California enacted Penal Code 646.9 in 1990.6

  • They would "tail" or "shadow" you. (It should be noted that the term "stalking" was used in photography as early as 1902.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 16:30
  • Wide internet use in the past couple decades has allowed specific terms to become common quickly across wide geographic, and demographic, areas. A word like "stalker" might now catch attention much more easily than 100 years ago and stick as the commonly accepted term. Commented May 26, 2015 at 22:04

6 Answers 6


I've stumbled across an example of the modern usage of stalking that's a couple of decades earlier than most of those citations above. It comes from John Le Carre's 1968 novel A Small Town In Germany. A woman is describing her colleague's behaviour after she rejected his advances: he starts turning up at all the parties she goes to, and so she suspects that he has been reading her mail in her office pigeonhole in order to anticipate her movements. She confronts him about his behaviour, and relates his response:

'He assured me categorically that he was not… stalking me. That was the expression I used; it was one I instantly regretted. I cannot imagine how I came on such a ridiculous metaphor.'

What's particularly interesting, I think, is that the character appears to be inventing the modern usage within the story, but then trying to withdraw from it. (Of course, this being Le Carré, the man isn't a stalker at all, he's a suspected mole.)


There may not have been a specific, well-understood noun to describe the stalker prior to the word "stalker" taking on a specific meaning under the law. "intimidator", "harasser", "nuisance" or in specific cases,"Peeping Tom" may have been used to describe that person.

Per the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault website, anti-stalking laws first were enacted in 1990 in California with all 50 states having a similar law in place within the following few years. The historical information below describes stalkers prior to the stalking laws in very general terms - usually a former spouse or someone known to the victim:

Until the passage of stalking (also known as "anti-stalking") legislation, victims had few remedies. Many citizens were victimized by incessant intimidation and physical harm because the jurisdiction's code of criminal laws offered law enforcement either inadequate or no tools to protect victims of these types of crimes.

Until recently, stay-away or restraining orders were the only means of protection for stalking victims. These traditional measures were rarely effective because they penalized perpetrators only after the orders had been violated -- when the harm they were designed to protect against had already occurred. These orders also often had jurisdictional boundaries which limited their enforcement.

Until recently, states required police to have either an accusation of assault (which, legally, is a threat with the immediate potential for physical harm) or a violation of a protective order before they could protect a victim by arresting the perpetrator.

In the past, police could also use harassment or terroristic threat statutes, but harassment statutes usually carry only misdemeanor penalties and are of limited effectiveness in deterring a stalker. Terroristic threat statutes were also of limited use because they usually did not encompass the types of behavior common to stalkers.

  • What I'm getting out of it, @Josh61, is that the activity existed prior to the anti-stalking laws being enacted, but it was called by a variety of names and descriptions and was difficult to enforce and ultimately, difficult to protect the victims of stalking. Again, my interpretation is that the term has taken on an almost hypernym function for all the intrusive and threatening activities in which a stalker engages. Commented May 26, 2015 at 17:37

There may have been several different terms used to describe the behaviour of a stalker

1. b. fig. One who moves stealthily, timidly, or abjectly, or proceeds in a mean and servile way. c 1605 Rowley Birth Merl. iii. vi, A gilded rascal, A low-bred despicable creeper. 1631 R. Brathwait Eng. Gentlew. (1641) 360 They were..no strutters in the streets, but despicable creepers.

pursue pursue + -er
1. To follow with hostility or enmity; to seek to injure (a person); to persecute; to harass, worry, torment. Now rare or Obs. exc. as implied in 2.

2. A person who ruthlessly exploits others: a sexual predator
1920s: from Latin praedator 'plunderer', from praedat- 'seized as plunder', from the verb praedari

An excerpt from a book titled The Peter Lawford Story 1990 describes the phenomenon of stalking celebrities without ever using the word stalker.

There are crazies like "Beverly Lawford" who become so obsessed with a celebrity that their fantasies are lived as though they are a reality. ... They can walk your streets, follow you everywhere, telephone you, send you letters, and generally harass you. ... they can threaten you, discuss obscene acts they are planning to perform on your body, and do almost anything they wish. But so long as they do not physically hurt you the police have limited power and elaborate rules to follow. For example, when I receive threatening phone calls, I have to log the time each call is received, what is said, and describe the person to the best of my ability (male voice ...

And the following excerpts illustrate that the participle, stalking, was sometimes used when it preceded an act of aggression or physical assault.

Then she had the sense that the man in the yellow Tshirt was stalking her and she picked up her pace. The man came as close as about five feet, and she could see his face and hair. Within a minute or two she was grabbed from behind, ...
Massachusetts Appeals Court reports, 1982

Cody's air sickness tablet was having its tranquilizing effect on her, so she could only acquiesce to whatever the predator suggested. And predator he was. He was stalking her as the primitive Indian did the helpless deer. No, she wasn't completely helpless. She managed to glare at him later while Marshall withdrew their luggage from the baggage compartment at the rear of the Cherokee.
Wind Song, 1983

newspaper snippet of ex-husband who "stalked" his wife Weekly World News (24 Sep 1985)

  • Yes, actually what is meant by stalking is an obsessive harassment carried out in different ways, mainly tailing and making anonymous or threatening phone calls. What would a girl/woman have told the police in the 80's to report instances of such behaviours? Someone is harassing me ? My neighbour is an harasser?
    – user66974
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 18:36
  • @Josh61, yes and yes. The article I partially quoted in my answer addresses that. Because the language was disparate and ambiguous, it was hard to nail down exactly what kind of threat the victim faced. Commented May 26, 2015 at 18:55
  • Sometimes they were called a dirty caller, but it wasn't really a huge problem back then, and of course the caller said obscene things. You had flasher and molester which are sort of variations on the theme of stalking. "Someone is following/hounding me" would have been the phrase used.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 18:55
  • 1
    Actually, I think a "flasher" is more a crime of opportunity (picturing a trench-coated pervert waiting in a darkened doorway for an unsuspecting woman or girl to pass by so he can flash them). Commented May 26, 2015 at 19:03
  • 1
    Mari-Lou: More evidence that the phenomenon of stalking is not new: A 1929 mystery novel contains a stalker whose plan is to murder his ex-girlfriend and then commit suicide. (Luckily, he is stopped before he can carry it out.) Click here for the title; this is a major spoiler for the book. His actions seem a lot like the stalkers you hear about today, and the characters don't seem to think this is exceptionally strange behavior. I don't know whether stalking would have been a crime at the time if it hadn't involved murder, though. Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 19:29

Answering the 'activity' part:

I've seen the verb shadow being used this way.

Meaning "to follow like a shadow" is from c. 1600 in an isolated instance; not attested again until 1872. (Etymonline)

As in:

He shadowed her through the trees for fifty yards before she squatted again...

[Example usage from google books]

However, shadow was certainly not used exclusively in this context, and detectives shadowed suspects quite often.


There's lots of references to people being stalked in the 19th and 20th century texts, though there's no suggestion of it being an on-going behaviour pattern, just a one time event.

Here is a slightly earlier 1985 usage, that fits the modern sense.

... For weeks
he stalked her on the streets, threatening to kill,
though we'd laugh at him, and he'd laugh too.
Frigid he'd whisper, through a grin, all of 'em...

from Native Land, by Lowell Jaeger.

  • That clearly means, followed her in the sense of hunting her. It appears that the term at one point acquired the current wider connotation. Intresting point.
    – user66974
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 9:13

It occurred to me that Sherlock Holmes wore a "deer-stalker" hat (Arthur Conan Doyle's character first published in 1887!) The concept of stalking a deer seems related to me--stealthy pursuit. Yet Conan Doyle did not describe it as a deerstalker hat. I just confirmed this by downloading a (free!) Kindle book on Amazon of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which allowed me to search for the word deerstalker--and the term was not in the text. Conan Doyle said that he wore a cloth hat in one of the stories but a deerstalker hat was never mentioned. An actor named William Hooker Gillette wore a deerstalker hat onstage in the role, early in the 1900's. Below is taken from Wikipedia:

William Hooker Gillette (July 24, 1853 – April 29, 1937) was an American actor-manager, playwright, and stage-manager in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best remembered for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage and in a 1916 silent film thought to be lost until it was rediscovered in 2014.

Gillette's most significant contributions to the theater were in devising realistic stage settings and special sound and lighting effects, and as an actor in putting forth what he called the "Illusion of the First Time". His portrayal of Holmes helped create the modern image of the detective. His use of the deerstalker cap (which first appeared in some Strand illustrations by Sidney Paget) and the curved pipe became enduring symbols of the character.[1][self-published source]

Deer stalking is a British term for the stealthy pursuit of deer on foot with intention of killing the deer for meat, for sport, or to control the numbers. As part of a land management programme, just as with bird hunting and shooting, the aim with deer stalking is to reduce crop damage and to obtain food.

From: Deer stalking - Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deer_stalking Search for: What does deer stalking mean

--I'm debating with myself about the use of the word stalking to identify stealthy pursuit of one human by another-- a behavior of a character in the novel I'm writing, whose actions are set in 1963. On the strength of the Sherlock Holmes reference it seems possible the idea may have been easily gained, in spite of the lack of exact published references thus far identified.

  • Your first link is broken. Could you supply the name of the website, please?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 5:20
  • This is a good answer but posted on the wrong question. The OP is not asking how the word "stalker" caught on, they are asking what was a person who obsessively followed/stalked a victim called before the 1990s.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 5:27

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