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Re: Euphemism . . . 'Tom'

Posted by R. Berg on May 01, 2003

In Reply to: Re: Euphemism. More about the origin of 'Tom' posted by James Briggs on May 01, 2003

: : : : : Does anyone know where the meaning 'Tom' comes from with regard to a lady of the night!

: : : : "Tom" meaning a prostitute is a slang term used in London UK, and, if TV shows are to be believed, its usage is particularly prevalent in the Police Force.

: : : : With such a London connection, the instant suspicion is that Cockney rhyming slang may be involved. Cockney rhyming slang definitely already has two other meanings for the word "tom", namely jewellery (from tomfoolery) and shit (from Tom Tit), which just goes to show that context is everything when trying to understand a Cockney. Some have claimed that "tom" meaning a prostitute derives from "Thomas More" equalling "whore".

: : : : Another theory revolves round "tom" being an abbreviation of "tomboy", which used to carry a pejorative meaning of a bold or immodest woman, in contrast to today's sense of simply "boyish or boisterous girl".

: : : : There may well be other possibilities, but given the fact that this is such a London term - and I've never heard it used anywhere else - I favour the rhyming slang theory.
: : : :

: : : Here are some relevant entries in Slang and Euphamism, A Dictionary, by Richard A. Spears, Signet Books, 1991:

: : : Tom: a prostitute
: : : Tomato: a prostitute (U.S. underworld, early 1900s)
: : : Tomboy: a rude and sexually uncontrolled girl; a strumpet (Primarily British, 1500s - 1800s)
: : : Tomrig: a girl or woman, especially one who is sexually loose (colloquial, early 1700s - 1900s)
: : : Tom Tart: a sexually loose woman. Rhyming slang for "tart"

: : Apologies for the typo.

: Tom: A simpleton can be described as a Tom fool but why should Tom be singled out for this degradation? There seems to be no answer. Tom appears to have been chosen for no now identifiable reason, unlike Jack. An early example of 'Tom' to describe a madman is in Shakespeare's King Lear (3.iv) when Edgar, in disguise and apparently living in a hovel, uses the name and also speaks the phrase 'Poor Tom's a-cold'. So clearly the association is very old, with Shakespeare seemingly using a well established convention. Apparently, back in medieval times, it was reckoned great sport to watch the antics of insane people in asylums like Bedlam in London, where inmates were sometimes given the nicknames 'Tom o' Bedlam' and 'Tom Fool'. The OED states:- 1356-7 Durham Acc. Rolls "Pro funeracione Thome Fole" [from 1337 frequently mentioned as 'Thomas fatuus'].1565 Calfhill "I might byd them tell them, as Tom foole did his geese".

Apparently "Tom Fool" was similar to "John Doe," a substitute for a name, commonly given in medieval times to a man whose mental functioning was so impaired that he couldn't tell people his name--what we'd now call the village idiot. I think the Discussion Forum archives have something about that.

I haven't heard "Tom" used for prostitutes in the US.