Prostitution has been called the world's oldest profession, and that isn't a statement to take lightly. Especially since, according to history books and ancient documents, it seems to be a trade at least as old as we are. Which is why, unsurprisingly, there have been a lot of names and slang terms for prostitutes over the years. In several Middle Eastern societies, including Babylon and Egypt, prostitutes were often considered holy, and kept as part of a religious faith. In Victorian London they were tolerated, but looked down on. Today, depending on where you live, prostitutes can be criminals or tax-paying citizens. The names vary; whore, escort, street walker, and in America a popular one is hooker. But while we all use the term to refer to prostitutes, no one seems entirely sure where the label came from.
Well, except us.
The Popular, But Incorrect, Myth
The most popular version of the story about the term hooker concerns Union General Joseph Hooker. Ever since armies have gone off to war, there have been camp followers and hangers on that provide services for the soldiers that the soldiers can't do, or don't have time for. That's included armorers and farriers, peddlers and food sellers, and of course those who specialized in relaxing soldiers' pent-up tensions. Rather than trying to discourage prostitutes from following his soldiers, though, Hooker brought them along to keep his men fighting hard (no pun intended). It appeared to work, and the prostitutes were called Hooker's Division, or Hooker's Reserves, by the men. However, while funny, hooker as a term was already in use by this point in history, and had been since 1845.
So where did it actually come from?
The Real Story
A more credible theory for where the term came from, aside from the obvious metaphor of hooking clients like fishermen, is that "hookers" were named for a famous place district where they plied their trade. That district was in New York City, and it was called The Hook. The first recorded use of the term was in 1845, which makes New York City the birthplace of this particular bit of slang. And the name stuck, as we can see today with so many sex workers both legal and illegal getting the title labeled right across their names.