c. 1200 (late 12c. in surnames), "vagabond, man of no fixed occupation, idle rogue," from Old French herlot, arlot "vagabond, tramp, vagrant; rascal, scoundrel," with cognates in Old Provençal (arlot), Old Spanish (arlote), and Italian (arlotto), but of unknown origin. Usually male in Middle English and Old French. Used in positive as well as pejorative senses by Chaucer; applied in Middle English to jesters, buffoons, jugglers, later to actors. Secondary sense of "prostitute, unchaste woman" probably had developed by 14c., certainly by early 15c., but this was reinforced by its use euphemistically for "strumpet, whore" in 16c. English 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.
updated on May 26, 2015