With the conquest of England in 1066 by William of Normandy, the Anglo-Saxon language of the British Isles underwent several alterations. As the French-speaking Normans established themselves as the ruling caste, they treated the native Saxons and their language as inferior.
Many Saxon words were regarded as crude simply because they were spoken by Saxons. Some of these words, once inoffensive, survived and passed eventually into English as coarse, impolite, or foul expressions. Etymologists list numerous examples of “polite” (Norman) and “impolite” (Saxon) words:
Norman Anglo Saxon
The mother tongue of the twelve kings and queens from William I (who ruled from 1066 to 1087) to Richard II (from 1377 to 1399) was the Normans’ French, though the Anglo-Saxons’ English continued to be spoken. When the two tongues blended into a new language, Middle English, which became the official language of the court in 1362 and the language for teaching in the universities at Oxford and Cambridge in 1380, we inherited many double expressions. In addition to those listed above, the Norman “fornicate” came to be the respectable replacement for the Saxon “fuck,” which itself derived from the Old English word fokken, meaning “to beat against.”
The Normans, of course, had obtained their word “fornicate” from an earlier language, and etymologists trace the origin to fornix, Latin for a small, vaulted-ceiling basement room that could be rented for a night. For in Roman Christian times, prostitutes practiced their trade secretly in such underground rooms, much the way a modern prostitute might rent a hotel room. Fornix first became a noun synonymous with “brothel,” then a verb meaning “to frequent a brothel,” fornicari, and finally the name of the activity conducted therein. The word “prostitute” comes to us from the Latin prostitutus, meaning “offered for sale.” It not only reflects that a prostitute charges for services, but as the verb “to prostitute,” connotes sacrificing one’s integrity for material gain. “Prostitute” was itself a euphemism for the Old English word “whore,” a term that once merely suggested desire.
The American term “Hooker” is believed to be associated with General Joseph (“Fighting Joe”) Hooker of Civil War fame. To bolster the morale of his men, General Hooker is supposed to have allowed prostitutes access to his troops in camp, where they became known as “Hooker’s girls.” When a section of Washington was set aside for brothels, it acquired the name Hooker’s Division, and the local harlots became hookers.
The term “gay,” synonymous today with “homosexual,” dates back to thirteenth-century France, when gai referred to the “cult of courtly love” —that is, homosexual love—and a “lover” was a gaiol. Troubadour poetry of that period explicitly discusses this “cult” love.
In the following centuries, the word was appropriated to describe first a prostitute, then any social undesirable, and lastly, in a homophobic British culture, to describe both homosexuality and the homosexual himself. Its first public use in the United States (aside from pornographic fiction) was in a 1939 Hollywood comedy, Bringing Up Baby, when Cary Grant, sporting a dress, exclaimed that he had “gone gay.”