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c.1200 (late 12c. in surnames), "vagabond, man of no fixed occupation, idle rogue," from Old French herlot, arlot "vagabond, tramp" (usually male in Middle English and Old French), with forms in Old Provençal (arlot), Old Spanish (arlote), and Italian (arlotto); of unknown origin. Used in both positive and pejorative senses by Chaucer; applied in Middle English to jesters, buffoons, jugglers, later to actors. Sense of "prostitute, unchaste woman" probably had developed by 14c., certainly by early 15c., but this was reinforced by use as euphemism for "strumpet, whore" in 16c. translations of the Bible. The word may be Germanic, with an original sense of "camp follower," if the first element is hari "army," as some suspect.
(1.) Heb. zonah (Gen. 34:31; 38:15). In verses 21, 22 the Hebrew word used in _kedeshah_, i.e., a woman consecrated or devoted to prostitution in connection with the abominable worship of Asherah or Astarte, the Syrian Venus. This word is also used in Deut. 23:17; Hos. 4:14. Thus Tamar sat by the wayside as a consecrated kedeshah. It has been attempted to show that Rahab, usually called a "harlot" (Josh. 2:1; 6:17; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25), was only an innkeeper. This interpretation, however, cannot be maintained. Jephthah's mother is called a "strange woman" (Judg. 11:2). This, however, merely denotes that she was of foreign extraction. In the time of Solomon harlots appeared openly in the streets, and he solemnly warns against association with them (Prov. 7:12; 9:14. See also Jer. 3:2; Ezek. 16:24, 25, 31). The Revised Version, following the LXX., has "and the harlots washed," etc., instead of the rendering of the Authorized Version, "now they washed," of 1 Kings 22:38. To commit fornication is metaphorically used for to practice idolatry (Jer. 3:1; Ezek. 16:15; Hos. throughout); hence Jerusalem is spoken of as a harlot (Isa. 1:21). (2.) Heb. nokriyah, the "strange woman" (1 Kings 11:1; Prov. 5:20; 7:5; 23:27). Those so designated were Canaanites and other Gentiles (Josh. 23:13). To the same class belonged the "foolish", i.e., the sinful, "woman." In the New Testament the Greek pornai, plural, "harlots," occurs in Matt. 21:31,32, where they are classed with publicans; Luke 15:30; 1 Cor. 6:15,16; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25. It is used symbolically in Rev. 17:1, 5, 15, 16; 19:2.