How we call things at any moment in history is an interesting topic. Times change and words are re-chosen to fit the mood of the age. I thought I’d heard every euphemism there was to hear about prostitutes. ‘Ladies of the evening’, ‘women of easy virtue’ and so on were common 19th century code words. By the 20th the poetic gave way to the more direct ‘working girl’ and later still, at least in the UK the unflatteringly discreet yet tawdry word, ‘escort’. Now of course the only politically correct terminology is “sex worker”, but that’s another story. I came across another phrase last week that sent me hastening to Wikihooker. I had never encountered these words before, so I had to share them with you, gentle reader. You may be disappointed and be saying to yourself “We knew that…” but perhaps not. The phrase is a charming one; “frail Cyprian”.
Cyprian is a variant of Cypriot, that is to say a native of Cyprus. That alone makes it as unacceptable a phrase these days as “Indian giver” or to “Welsh on a deal”.
Anyway, it wasn’t that there were boatloads of Cypriot good time girls (there’s another euphemism) disembarking at docksides around the world. Cyprus was associated with Venus Aphrodite, hence love and pleasure. Before it took off as an epithet for harlots, Cyprian was a forename. Churches were dedicated to St Cyprian. By the 18th century the term Cyprian itself was most often applied to prostitutes who worked the army camps (the Cyprian Corps) and in London those high class floosies that made their money picking up tricks outside or often inside the theatres (often singled out for their high class status with another arch euphemism as ‘disciples of Phryne’). Some Cyprians grew so rich that they bought expensive wheels from the most exclusive of carriage makers. However, at least one of them fell foul of the law and I think this story involves more than supper and is code for how she tried to pay the bills on her back.
The frail part of frail Cyprian had a brief existence in English usage. Hit rate on the British Library’s digitised newspaper library points to the fact that the term was short-lived in popularity. Nothing was recorded before 1810 and in the next decade it was used in print just twice and once in the following. However it had an outing ten times in the decade 1830 to 1839 and then virtually disappeared forever.
Even the more commonly used ‘Cyprian’ was reclaimed by genteel society. More and more boy children were named Cyprian after mid century; a famous racehorse carried the name and though the term hung on in Ireland as a name for streetwalkers, by the 1880s when the UK’s dominion over Cyprus was discussed, people of the island were named as Cyprians without any slur on their morality.
It survived longer in the United States. One September day in 1890 in St Paul, Minnesota, Georgie Cordon, described in the Daily Globe as a ‘frail and dusky Cyprian’, proved herself less than frail as she took a knife to the old harridan who kept the lodging house where she worked.
I want to reintroduce the delicate irony of the phrase. In the last century I spent the night once (no, not like that) with Xaviera Hollander, the famous ‘Happy Hooker’ of the 1970s. I’m sure she for one would love to have been called a ‘frail Cyprian.’