What’s In A Name?

I belong to a special club.

In order to be admitted, you must endure a lifetime of harassment.  If, and only if you have a last name like Hooker, can you too be admitted into our club.  Oh, I know you are out there – I’ve met you, heard your name announced while the teacher called for attendance, when your name was called over the PA system at Target for your lost child, when you finally made the starting lineup and you were introduced before the big game.

I know you’re out there Mr./Mrs.:


But its time to unite fellow kinda-weird last namer’s!!!!!

(It’s not like you had a choice anyway, right?)

Last names are generally derived from one of four sources: the name of the person’s father, the person’s locality, the person’s occupation, or a descriptive nickname for the person. When they were created, they answered one of the following questions: Who is this person’s father? Where is this person from? What does this person do for a living? What is his or her most prominent feature?

The last name of Hooker certainly has a colorful past.  A common question posed by those interested in my surname:

hookerjpgQuestion: “In a biography of General U S Grant, there was mention of a charismatic American Civil War general called ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker, and his female camp followers, known as Hooker’s women, or Hookers, for short. Do you know, is this the origin of the word Hooker for a lady of negotiable affections, or is it folk etymology?”

Answer: This is a persistent but untrue story.

General ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker. It wasn’t him, honest.
Joseph Hooker (November 13, 1814 – October 31, 1879) was a career United States Army officer, fought in the Mexican-American War, and was a major general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Although he served throughout the war, usually with distinction, Hooker is best remembered for his stunning defeat by Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. He became known as “Fighting Joe” during the Civil War due to civilian clerical error, however the nickname stuck.  Hooker’s headquarters were described as a combination of bar and brothel into which no decent woman could go. It is also said that his men were an undisciplined lot who often frequented prostitutes (a red-light area of Washington is supposed to have briefly been called Hooker’s division for this reason). So it’s not surprising that hooker is often assumed to derive from his rowdy command.

However, there’s a fatal flaw: the word is recorded several times before the Civil War. It’s listed in the second edition of John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1859 and another example is known from North Carolina in 1845. An even earlier instance was turned up by George Thompson of New York University in The New York Transcript of 25 September 1835, which contains a whimsical report of a police court hearing in which a woman of no reputation at all is called a hooker because she “hangs around the hook”.
This obscure reference is to Corlear’s Hook, an area of New York. Bartlett suggests the same origin for the term, based on “the number of houses of ill-fame frequented by sailors” in the area. Though this origin sounds plausible, it may well be that John Bartlett and others who made this connection were falling victim to an earlier version of folk etymology. There is some evidence to suggest that it really comes from a much older British low slang term for a specialist thief who snatches items using a hook. In 1592, in a book on low-life called The Art of Conny Catching (conny or cony, the old word for a rabbit, was then a cant term for a mark or sucker), Robert Greene says that such thieves, “pull out of a window any loose linen cloth, apparel, or else any other household stuff”. The implication is that the hooker catches her clients by similar, albeit less tangible, methods. – Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds in the US

So what else can you do but laugh and feel sorry for those who have boring last names.  I’m just thankful that my parents didn’t give me the first name of Ima…..


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Jeff Stubbe on February 27, 2009 at 9:59 PM

    I didn’t know there was such a club. If so, I think I’ve passed the qualifier. For instance…Just last Tuesday I sat in a room with about 400 other potential jurors. During the morning roll call I hear Jeff (pause as they second guess) Ssstubby. Followed immediately by low level snickers. I guess it’s like living next to the airport…I don’t even notice it anymore. We’re thankful to know such a wonderful family of Hookers. :0)

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