A New York street helps coin the term “hooker”

Corlears Hook was named in the 17th century for the Van Corlears family, early Dutch settlers who had a farm near this spit of land jutting into into the East River.

In the 18th century, the British renamed it Crown Point (on the 1776 map below), and in the 19th century it reverted back to its New Amsterdam moniker.

But it wasn’t farmland anymore. By the 1830s it became the city’s most notorious red-light district, attracting sailors and the women who serviced them.

The women of Corlears Hook
“. . . where the lowest and most debased of their class. They were flashy, untidy, and covered with tinsel and brass jewelry,” states Seafaring Women, by David Cordingly. “Their dresses are short, arms and necks bare, and their appearance is as disgusting as can be conceived.”

“The latter area is generally credited with giving rise to the term ‘hooker’ and certainly had its fair share of rough characters, male and female,” adds Cordingly.

By the 20th century, Corlears Hook had become a lovely park, which today offers views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges—and no hint of its importance in creating a popular term for ladies of the night.

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15 Responses to “A New York street helps coin the term “hooker””

  1. greg chown Says:

    As always, a great post.
    I know that the word hobo comes from Hoboken but Soho still confuses me.
    South of Housten is the understood origin but surely London’s Soho district pre dates New York’s…
    Here in Toronto we have an old street also called Soho.
    Any thoughts?

    • question Says:

      Hobo is short for either “Homeward Bound” or “Hoe Boy”

      Young men who fought in the civil war came back with nothing, and started riding the newly constructed railroad lines carrying hoes with them (think the bindle: a stick with a kercheif tied onto the end), looking for farm work. When asked where they were headed by authorities, they said they were ‘headed home’ from the war.

      totally poetic anyways.

  2. greg chown Says:

    I found this on line:
    Soho was first used as a cry in rabbit hunting. It was yelled when the hunters had sighted the rabbit, equivalent to Tally Ho in fox hunting. The words Sohou, Sohou appear on a seal, bearing the image of a hare, dating from 1307. The following appears in the 14th century manuscript Kyng Alisaunder:

    So ho! so ho! We ben awroke of dogges two!
    (Soho! Soho! We’ve been avenged of the two dogs.)

    The area where the London neighborhood now occupies was once pasture land where hunting took place. Mill’s Dictionary of English Place Names gives a 1632 date for the place name, but it is not clear whether this is actually the date of a citation using the word as the location in what is now London or whether it is a citation of the hunting cry. The earliest citation in the OED of the place name is from an 1818 letter by poet John Keats:

    Then who would go Into dark Soho, And chatter with dack’d hair’d critics.

    The origin of New York City’s Soho district is another story. The New York neighborhood got its name from an acronym, “SOuth of HOuston Street.” In the late 1960s, the city was redeveloping the area and used the acronym widely in its planning documents. From the New York Times, 19 October 1969:

    What’s so special about the South Houston Industrial Area (known in planning jargon as SOHO), a 40-block district bounded by Houston St. on the north, Canal on the south, West Broadway on the west, and Lafayette on the east? For one thing, it coincides with one of the city’s finest architectural areas, the cast-iron district. And for another, the spacious loft buildings that once harbored mostly small businesses have been infiltrated by thousands of artists and their families.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Cool research, thanks. And Keats, no less!
    After Soho we got Tribeca and Noho…and the trend continues with FiDi, BoCoCa, MePa, and other silliness….

  4. petey Says:

    now. i’d thought that ‘hooker’ came from the idea of ‘hooking’ a client, metaphorical from using a hook to pull him in

  5. jb Says:

    Not related to prostitution, another use of “hookers” was for a gang of teenage hoodlums from Red Hook Brooklyn around the turn of the century: http://www.brooklyn.com/faqanswer-101.html

    their rivals were the “creekers” from gowanus

  6. RobNYN1957 Says:

    There are a whole bunch words that involve selling things in public that appear to me to have the same root: a hooker, hawking a newspaper, a huckster, hocking (pawning) a ring, and (possibly) hoax. In German, the related words are hoekern and verhoekern (to hawk, to huckster]. (“Ver” is a prefix that (among other things) represents a process. It changes “kaufen” (buy) to “verkaufen” (sell).) Middle Dutch “hoekester” apparently meant “peddler” and may be the origin of them all.

    In fact, the German expression for “to peddle one’s ass” (turn tricks) is “den Arsch [ver]hoekern”:

    http://www.google.com/#sclient=psy&hl=en&source=hp&q=%22arsch+verh%C3%B6kern%22&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=5238e96ce7701ef9

    It seems a lot easier to get from “hawking your ass on the street” to “hooking” than any of the other explanations. For example, the General Hooker story has never explained why of all of the generals in history, camp followers would be named after him.

  7. T.J. Connick Says:

    I’m with RobNYN1957 on “hooker”. Such words aren’t learned in the kitchen or at school. Used by so many and for so long, they’re acquired from those that Mother and Teacher would call “bad influences”. Their disapproval had the unintended effect of keeping the words from losing their zest, their danger, their spark. When you weren’t to use “such language” “in mixed company”, or “in front of your sister”, or “in the house”, it kept the word from getting all the air sucked out of it. And with school another place abiding the domestic urge to keep our language tidy, the word’s “life in the wild” could continue untamed.

    I’m always afraid to go in the water when the college educated go hunting for undiscovered origins of words that arise and thrive without benefit of book or school. Growing up we learned most of “that talk” “on the street”, and except for thoroughly unreliable graffiti, all of it had vitality that “book words” could never have precisely because it passed from larynx to ear, not page to eye. Perhaps it is the aural experience of slang that makes it what it is. Once it’s been cooked, dried, reconstituted, and printed in a book, it’s sort of like a stuffed bird.

    When we were kids, she wasn’t a hooker. She “lived the life”, one of the few translations from Italian that seems to float as delightfully in English. She was many different colorful words and expressions in other languages, but if you were “talking American”, she was, of course, a whore. But nobody — and I mean nobody — in New York said whore the way I hear it said now. New Yorkers said hoowuh, stressing the first syllable. All of this led to comical scenes come high school and the word pops up in Shakespeare. “W-h-o-r-e: that’s how you spell hoowuh?” Even funnier conversations followed when we heard the teacher say hoar. “What the hell is that? If it’s hoowuh why the hell is he saying it like that? Are you sure it’s not a different word, this hoar word?”

    We must have gotten our New York pronunciation of the one “living the life” from our Knickerbocker days, and it only got killed, stuffed, and given little glassy eyes when it was allowed “into the house” by Mother and Teacher.

  8. petey Says:

    “all of it had vitality that “book words” could never have precisely because it passed from larynx to ear, not page to eye. Perhaps it is the aural experience of slang that makes it what it is. Once it’s been cooked, dried, reconstituted, and printed in a book, it’s sort of like a stuffed bird.”

    i quite disagree, many is the phrase that i’ve seen on the page that has stopped me in place or provoked outright instant laughter. (btw “Knickerbocker days” is a vivd phrase itself and not one i ever heard bantered among us kids.) being on the one hand the son of an immigrant bus driver who heard the street talk, and on the other hand college and more educated, i’ve discovered more flavor in the bird stuffed and cooked than in the raw one.

  9. Joe R Says:

    I once took an AMNH sponsored history/geology tour around the island and the lecturer told us that much of the riverside park land along Corlear’s Hook and the LES was actually a little bit of London, England! According to him, in the early days of WW2, British ships came to NYC to take home cargo for the war effort. The ships came in empty, laden only with ballast which was made of the rubble and ruins of the London Blitz.

  10. wildnewyork Says:

    That’s cool, I love finding out things like that!

  11. Tales from the Edge of America – Day 1 | Twitchhiker Says:

    [...] notorious red light district; the sailors working on the East River docks had their pick of ladies “as disgusting as can be conceived”, and as a result our language is richer for the word [...]

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