Prostitution is referred to as the oldest profession, but the English word "prostitute" is a borrowing that started being used in the English language around 1600. I would like to know what the prostitutes were most commonly called in Britain before.

My question is this: What are the main original English words or short expressions for women who regularly engage in sexual activity for payment?

Please kindly note that my question is not about women who have many casual sexual encounters or relationships just for fun. My question is about making money in this way.

Please also kindly note that my question is not about being financially supported or provided for by a lover. My question is about selling sex to different customers and taking money for individual sex sessions.

Also, my question is not about old words that recently became a slang or euphemistic word for a prostitute, like "escort" or "hooker." I am looking for words that were used as most standard words for a prostitute before the word "prostitute" came into existence in the English language.

Whether a word survived or got extinct is irrelevant. What is important is whether the word was among the most commonly used words for a prostitute before ~1600.

My question is not strictly limited to words of English origin, although my primary interest is about them. At any rate, only those borrowed words qualify that were borrowed well before the word "prostitute" was.

I know the word "whore," but my impression is that it is very derogatory, so I especially want to learn nice English words, similar to 遊女 (woman of pleasure), which pay more respect to the oldest profession than "whore" does.

I did my own research, but was largely unsuccessful. A very interesting Wikipedia article, entitled "Prostitution in the United Kingdom," says that prostitutes were licensed in Britain as early as 1161, but does not say what the prostitutes were commonly called at that time in everyday communications and in legislative acts. The word "courtesan" was borrowed at about the same time when the word "prostitute" was. Apart from the word "courtesan," the Oxford dictionary lists the following archaic words synonymous to "prostitute":

strumpet, harlot, trollop, wanton, woman of ill repute, lady of pleasure, Cyprian, doxy, drab, quean, trull, wench

Opening the definitions of these words, I did not find much beyond simple statements that the word is an archaic word for a prostitute, so it is unclear which of these words were the most commonly used and what their usage was (i.e., whether it was a legal term, a common neutral word for the profession, a nice or neutral slang word, or a derogatory slang word). Using Google Books Ngram Viewer to check the above words does not seem to be a useful idea, because the time period in question ends about 1600. There might also be extinct words that are not included in the Oxford dictionary but were commonly used in the past.

What I want is to learn what the prostitutes were most commonly called in everyday communications and official documents before 1600, i.e., just a short list of 1-3 words or so with remarks about the usage.

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    I’m afraid whore is probably your best bet for a word that would have been used to describe a prostitute back then. It did not have the same social baggage and derogatory force that it does now – that is to say, describing a prostitute as a whore back then would have been fairly neutral (though of course describing a countess as one would not be, but that’s by dint of the job, not its title). You may find it comforting to know that whore is ultimately cognate with Latin carus and originally meant ‘dear’ or ‘precious’. Jul 8, 2019 at 19:22
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    Another archaic term (not listed by Oxford for some reason) is doll; hence the character "Doll Common" in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 8, 2019 at 19:37
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    @Mitsuko That I don’t know, but I would consider it fairly likely, assuming that they had any actual licences (which I would think is less likely). Jul 8, 2019 at 19:52
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    The Biblical character Rahab is described as a harlot in the King James Bible (as a statement of fact, not an insult). Jul 8, 2019 at 19:58
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: We live in an age that shows deplorably faint interest in the progress of the fishes from egg to dotage. But 'twas not ever thus. As this list taken from a book published circa 1688 indicates, anglers of old were most particular about what they had caught. Even the lowly perch had five different names over its first four years of life.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 9, 2019 at 19:14

4 Answers 4


The only three Old English words I know referring to prostitutes are meretrix (a direct borrowing from Latin), for-legis (and similar forms, though they tend to also mean adulterer and rarely survived Old English), and miltestre (possibly based on meretrix, which makes it into the Middle English Dictionary as prostitute). All tend to appear in religious writing.

After that, the Oxford English Dictionary has whore (from about 1100, spelled without the [w] (ex. hore, hour) until the 14th century), and the Middle English Dictionary has gigelot and nyhtwerm. Again, these tend to appear in either Biblical or negative contexts in the sources I know of. For example, here's one example of gigelot:

Furmest in boure

were boses ybroht;

Levedis to honoure

ichot he were wroht;

Vch gigelot wol loure

bote he hem habbe soht,

Such schrewe fol soure

ant duere hit hath aboht

In helle ... (lines 23-31)

[First into the chamber were brought hair buns over cheeks; to honor ladies I know they were made; every courtesan will scowl unless she has obtained them. This shrew very bitterly and dearly has bought it in hell.]

So even in this example, gigelot is being used to chastise women for pride in their dress.

  • Thanks a lot, this is a great answer
    – Mitsuko
    Jul 9, 2019 at 14:25
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    @Mitsuko Back before we used four digits to number the years, Old English sported one more word for this that we’ve come to spell quean, and which by the time it could mean prostitute, had certainly come to mean something rather unlike the word you know as queen (with which it had had some overlap and confusion). In some dialects like Scots it was (or is) pronounced, and sometimes even spelled, quine. It was often no longer an especially kind word by the time it got to Middle English. It still has some currency, at least in literature and dialect.
    – tchrist
    Jul 10, 2019 at 7:06

This is a topic for specialists, of whom I am not one. You have obviously done a lot of research yourself.

Forgive the liberty but I have to correct your title and a premiss it contains. You will look for "indigenous English" words in vain and indeed for an indigenous English people. I am sure you know that the Celts probably came across from what is now continental Europe, that later the Romans invaded, bringing with them soldiers and hangers on from all over the Roman empire, after which the Saxons and Vikings, one after another, came and brought with them various teutonic dialects and languages, which gradually evolved into something we call English. Britain has been an island of invaders and immigrants right back into the mists of prehistory.

I suspect that sex working is as old as cities are and no older. I also suspect that for that reason it has cousin professions that are just as old, those made necessary by the existence of cities.

However, I find an article on the history of prostitution in Wkipaedia, which is worth looking at. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_the_United_Kingdom#Medieval_period

It points out, of course, the finds of Roman tokens by the Thames, which may have been admission tokens to brothels. The Romans had their own words for sex-worker: they range in descending order of disrespect: meretrix is a courtesan, understood to have some sort of relationship with the client; lupa means she-wolf; scortum means skin and is a neuter noun.

But then it goes on to the Mediaeval period and the brothels clustered in Southwark in London. And the regulators seem to have been the Bishops. It go on to narrate

1161 a parliament of Henry II introduced regulations allowing the Bishops to license brothels and prostitutes in the area, which became known as the Liberty of the Clink. As a result, brothels multiplied in the Bankside part of the Liberty. They were popularly known as "stew-houses" as many were also steam-filled bath houses.[31] The bishop was their landlord,...

They seem to have been strictly regulated.

Records of court proceedings indicate that priests, monks and friars were among their clients.[32] The brothels had to allow weekly searches by constables or bailiffs, and could not charge prostitutes more than 14 pence per week for a room. Opening was not permitted on holidays, and forced prostitution was prohibited. Prostitutes were not allowed to live at the brothels or to be married, and they were required to spend a full night with their clients.

From this account, I get a variety of words. But most striking is that of Winchester Geese. This is because they seem to have come under the jurisdiction of bishops of Winchester Palace (the bishops of Winchester), who, by the way, profited from this trade.

  • Geese? Go on...
    – Mitch
    Jul 8, 2019 at 21:21
  • @Mitch Why are you surprised? They worked in a ‘flock’, shepherded (ie controlled) by the bishops of Whinchester, who, in a sense, were living on them.
    – Tuffy
    Jul 8, 2019 at 21:26
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    @JanusBahsJacquet So it is. As for ‘indigenous, I’ll stick with the Cambridge English Dictionary definition: “naturally existing in a place or country rather than arriving from another place”. If we are talking about words belonging to Saxon and its teutonic relatives, you can’t get more Saxon than ‘geese’, though ‘Winchester’ contains the telltale final two syllables, derived from the Roman word for a military camp: Winchester.
    – Tuffy
    Jul 8, 2019 at 22:18
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    @HotLicks I have seen it suggested tha flint knapping is older. Tuffy - flints from Grimes Graves near Thetford were traded across Europe (which implies some means of exchange, which means prostitution was possbile). This predates European cities by quite some way. Jul 9, 2019 at 9:28
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    @Mitsuko I’m sorry to have come across critical. It’s an over-reaction to the rise of nationalism in my and other supposedly developed countries. You are right to point out that in modern times the word was used by explorers and colonialists to refer to the people they found when they got there. Perhaps they would have been more careful had they realised that they and everyone else on the planet were descended from people of Africa, and that there is more genetic diversity in Africa than in the rest of the entire world!
    – Tuffy
    Jul 9, 2019 at 9:53

According to my American Heritage College Dictionary (usually correct on etymology), whore descends to modern English from an Indo-European root, west Germanic, Old English, and Middle English. Is that sufficiently 'indigenous'? Perhaps more gently the same Indo-European rood is credited with giving us caress.


I'm researching a book and came across a place-name in Cumbria, England. The name Portinscale is mix of Anglo Saxon and Norse and means 'the temporary shelter of the townwoman'. Place name experts at the University of Nottingham explain that the word 'townwoman' was a euphemism for 'harlot'!

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  • What is "Anglo Saxon"? Do you mean the Saxon language that was spoken in England rather than in Saxony, or just in East Anglia? Or do you just mean Old English?
    – tchrist
    Jun 6, 2023 at 18:42

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