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The History of “Ho”

December 16, 2013
This was long thought to be the only portrait ...

William Shakespeare used the word “ho,” but it didn’t mean quite the same thing it does today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago when I found a bunch of old books of classic short stories, I was mildly surprised by a few of the words inside.  There was no outright profanity, but some of the innocent language used in books published 50 years ago would cause my children to laugh today.

For example, in one book’s version of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” some f*ggots were set on fire.  50 years ago, “f*ggots” meant “kindling or bundles of sticks used for a fire.”  Now if somebody uses that word, he/she would be fired or sent to sensitivity training (which might be worse than being fired).  I have to be careful when I write that word because I don’t want to get fired from my own blog.

Another example is “booty.” In the children’s version of The Iliad (yes, there was one), Agamemnon was jealous of Achilles’ booty.  Back then (in Ancient Greece and 50 years ago when these books were published), “booty” meant “treasure,” which made sense because Achilles had collected vast amounts of “booty” during the war with Troy and its allies.  But today’s kids have a different interpretation of Agamemnon’s lust for “booty.”

And it’s impossible to read Shakespeare (even children’s Shakespeare) without running across the word “ho.”  “Ho is kind of new.  40 years ago when I was a kid, I would have giggled at “f*ggot” or “booty.”  But “ho” wasn’t around yet (or if it was, I wasn’t aware of it).  If a Shakespearean actor shouted “What ho!” I wouldn’t have flinched.  After all, Santa Clause said “Ho! Ho! Ho!”  One of my favorite snack treats was Ho Hos.  It’s only been the last few decades where “ho” has come to mean… you know… the short version of “whore”.  How did this happen?

First of all, the word “whore” comes from the Old English “hore” and then Middle English “hore” (I don’t know what they pronunciation difference is), and before the Old English, there was Old Norse “hora.”  All three variations of “hor_” had the same meaning, which is basically the same meaning it has today, a prostitute (with an especially negative connotation).

Another word for “whore” that kind of looks like “ho” is “hooker.”  Supposedly, the term “hooker” came about because a Civil Way general named Hooker really liked prostitutes.  I’m a bit skeptical.  I doubt Hooker was the first general to really like prostitutes.  I’m guessing “hooker” was already used, but having a general named Hooker who liked hookers made the term more common.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary website, the first known usage of “ho” for “whore” was in 1965.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t any information about who said it, to whom it was said, what the reaction of the person to whom it was said was, or how long it took for the usage to become common.  I have a feeling that the person who first used “ho” as “whore” hasn’t gotten the recognition he (or maybe she) deserves.  It would tick me off to be the first person to use a slang term that catches on and then not get credit for it.  If I ever accidently create my own slang, I want credit.

Again, the reason “ho” matters when it comes to literature is that in some Elizabethan literature, the word “ho” was used as a term of greeting.  Characters greet each other by saying “What ho!” (or some variation using the word “ho”).  When kids (and some adults) hear this, they laugh.  Yes, prostitution may have been common in Elizabethan England, but not every character in a Shakespeare play is a “ho,” despite what they say to each other.

In this era where so many old stories are being rewritten, it’s kind of fun to look back at the old versions.  Just remember, context is everything.  F*ggots getting burned at night is not a crime against humanity.  Agamemnon lusting over Achilles’ booty does not lead to an inappropriate (alternative adult) scene.  And two characters saying “What ho!” to each other won’t lead to a fight (and if they fight, it isn’t because of the “What ho!”).  But the “What ho!” might lead to some giggling.

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From → Etymology

13 Comments
  1. Funny article. So much bastardization of language….ongoing. Have a great day.

  2. Lorraine permalink

    The word Hookers may have come from their occupation of “Fishing” for Johns on the streets. They Hooked them and reeled them in.

  3. bdallmann permalink

    You reminded me of an episode in high school when in English class we were reading Shakespeare aloud. When one of the guys read his line, “WHAT, ho??” the entire class exploded into laughter. The teacher was not amused.

  4. Would anybody really want to be credited with first calling someone a “ho” using today’s definition? We really can’t escape our own context…great post!

    • I don’t know. Maybe the type of person who would call somebody else a “ho” would also be the type of person who would want credit for being the first person to call somebody else a “ho.” But I don’t know much about these things.

  5. Your post made me laugh. A few weeks ago, I had to explain that rubbers used to mean covers for men’s shoes to keep the rain/snow off the leather. And my daughter still can’t believe that when I was little, thong was the term we used for flip-flops with a divider between the first two toes.

  6. Hahah thanks for the info! I had no idea about that civil war general idea. Learn something new everyday.

  7. It makes you wonder what we say these days that will be offensive in the future.

  8. Anonymous permalink

    The origins of ‘ho’ may be mysterious, but it was no doubt popularized by Velvet Jones.

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