Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Like every harlot in history…

with 9 comments

William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress, plate 2...
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Former UK Labour home secretary, David Blunkett,  pontificates:

Can you trust these Liberal Democrats? They are behaving like every harlot in history.

Casting around for a term of abuse? Well, there’s plenty of ready made terms associated with women to choose from: no need to trouble the old grey cells in an effort to come up with something original.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, is a man. Most of the Lib Dems involved in the current shenanigans are male. Yet —  excuse me if I fail to express surprise — behaviour deemed repugnant and reprehensible is characterised as female.

I find it irritating. So sue me.

Read more on this in the Telegraph

The female of the species

Mutton dressed as lamb

She’s so intolerant but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

Trilling and shrieking

Top scientist or top female scientist?

Gratuitous modifiers — or the lady bus driver

Excitable and bubbly

Am I allowed to say that?


9 Responses

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  1. Who says that a harlot must be a woman? This word has a very long and interesting history, see, i.a., Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary. I hear your objection that it now has only a feminine meaning, but (1) I’m sure that some ‘modern’ people refer to gay harlots; and (2) English is busily closing down so many expressive words, that the addition of one more twig to the pyre is to be deprecated.

    Dai Hawkins

    11/05/2010 at 6:48 pm

    • Hello, Dai — nice to see you again. Yes, the word does have an interesting history. It appears that it may have its origins in medieval Latin (arlotus, erlotus) meaning glutton. The Normans introduced ‘harlot’ into English in the thirteenth century when it was used to describe male beggars, rascals and rogues. It morphed into being used to describe male buffoons or jesters and then male servants. By the sixteenth century it was mainly used to describe female prostitutes. In the Oxford Dictionary of English it’s now described as ‘archaic’ with the meaning ‘prostitute or promiscuous woman’.

      I don’t deprecate the addition of such a twig to the pyre — especially when used in a context such as this.


      11/05/2010 at 7:07 pm

  2. I’d rather commend you; indeed it is irritating, albeit common (in both senses).
    Does it not occur that men are disproportionately represented in politics — and therefore political shenanigans? Could he not have come up with a male slur? Too much effort, I guess.

    Maggie Manning

    11/05/2010 at 6:51 pm

    • Hello, Maggie — you’re welcome, as ever. And thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m very glad I am not alone in my reaction to this type of comment.


      11/05/2010 at 7:14 pm

  3. Pontificating is an apt characterization, since all the known pontiffs have been male, and not exactly enlightened ones with regards to the status of women.

    Invisible Mikey

    11/05/2010 at 10:03 pm

    • Hi, Mikey — what a good point! I didn’t consciously think of the association with being ‘pontifical’. As you say, very appropriate. Thanks.


      12/05/2010 at 6:29 am

  4. It really does sound rude and demeaning to women. Women have been used to represent evil ever since Eve. Great post!


    12/05/2010 at 5:40 am

    • Hello, Lisa — welcome to Wordwatch! You are so right about the age-old association of women with evil. Thank you for your kind words, which I very much appreciate.


      12/05/2010 at 6:31 am

  5. Libby Brooks, writing in the Guardian today:

    In her seminal treatise Man Made Language, the feminist theorist Dale Spender makes the argument that language is a system that embodies sexual inequality. She offers evidence of the loss of prestige experienced when men are referred to in female terms (“don’t be such a girl”), and the way that words to describe women are consistently sexualised or imply over-emotion and weakness. (Nick Clegg, since the earliest coalition negotiations, has been described by critics as a “harlot”, a “flirt” and “arm candy”.)


    05/05/2011 at 7:52 am

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