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I'm working on a short story based around the Victorian age where the protagonist is a prostitute by profession. I was keen on using the word "harlot" in my title as it not only describes one of my central themes but also fits well with the archaic setting of my story. I am unsure of whether or not the word is offensive/derogatory in its general usage. I am definitely not trying to refer to my protagonist as a "slut" or a woman of loose character, so if that's what harlot refers to, I'll have no choice than to remove it from my title. Is "harlot" considered to be a derogatory word?

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  • Do any general reference materials mention it is derogatory or offensive?
    – livresque
    Mar 24, 2021 at 2:39
  • Are you trying to apply today's standards to your story's title, or Victorian standards? Victorian age prostitutes were considered "fallen women", so using a derogatory term like "harlot" seems appropriate for a story set in that era.
    – nnnnnn
    Mar 24, 2021 at 5:16

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The following extract can help in understanting its usage:

Harlot is an old-fashioned word for a prostitute — a woman who has sex for money.

These days, calling a woman a harlot is usually done humorously. This word is too old-sounding and unusual to be very insulting. Still, you shouldn't call anyone a harlot, because it's a term — just like "whore," "strumpet," and "lady of the night" — for a woman who has sex for money. That's never been a compliment, even though today the world's oldest profession has a much nicer term: sex worker.

Vocabulary.com

The term has a long history,

c. 1200 (late 12c. in surnames), "vagabond, man of no fixed occupation, idle rogue," from Old French herlot, arlot "vagabond, tramp, vagrant; rascal, scoundrel. Used in positive as well as pejorative senses by Chaucer; applied in Middle English to jesters, buffoons, jugglers, later to actors. Secondary sense of "prostitute, unchaste woman" probably had developed by 14c., certainly by early 15c., but this was reinforced by its use euphemistically for "strumpet, whore" in 16c.

Etymonline

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  • The Biblical character Rahab is described as a harlot simply as a statement of fact (she is praised for using her occupation as cover for hiding two Israelite spies); but in most people's eyes, especially in Victorian times, it's hardly complimentary to suggest that a woman makes her living in that way, whatever term you use. Mar 24, 2021 at 9:30
  • I’ve seen these examples earlier and they only ended up confusing me further. Some sources state it is inoffensive whilst some state it is. I get that calling ANY woman a prostitute to insinuate they have a loose character is inappropriate but if a woman is a prostitute, does calling her a harlot make it demeaning? Mar 25, 2021 at 5:09
  • @user11845919 - nowadays or in Victorian times?
    – user 66974
    Mar 25, 2021 at 6:43
  • In the Victorian times. I can tackle a contextual misunderstanding if someone considers the term profane by today’s standards if the word itself was acceptable back then. It’s just that the world harlot has a very nice ring to it in the context of my book because it summarises two very important things whilst sounding archaic. Mar 26, 2021 at 7:04
  • @user11845919 - take a poetic license and use the term the way you like :)
    – user 66974
    Mar 26, 2021 at 14:13

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