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?
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.
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.