Fanciful etymologies on an “ancient history” site

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"Lost in Translation? Understandings and Misunderstandings about the Ancient Practice of 'Sacred Prostitution'",  Ancient Origins:

Ishtar was sometimes called the Goddess Har since she was the mother of the harlots. These “harlots” were not prostitutes as we know them, but priestesses and healers. These harlots were holy virgins serving goddesses such as Ishtar, Asherah, or Aphrodite.

The Hebrew word hor means “a cave” or “dark hole” and the Spanish word for “whore”, puta, derives from the Latin term for “a well”. In turn, the Latin term for “grave” is puticuli, which means “womb of rebirth”. The root of the word came from an early Sanskrit language where puta is defined as pure and holy. The cave, the hole and the bottomless black lake were metaphors for the Great Goddess— the primordial darkness from which all life is born.

The Ancient Origins "about-us" page says that

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives

But the etymology in those two paragraphs is not just out-of-the-box, it's out-of-its-mind.

Taking up the first case: harlot doesn't seem to have anything to do with a goddess named Har. The OED's discussion of that word's etymology:

As a word of masculine gender found early in 13th cent., as feminine in 15th cent.; < Old French herlotharlotarlot (masculine), lad, young fellow, base fellow, knave, vagabond = Provençal arlot vagabond, beggar, Italian arlotto ‘a lack-latin or hedge-priest’ (Florio), ‘glutton, greedy gut, great eater’ (Baretti); compare medieval Latin arlotuserlotusglutton (Mahn); Old Spanish arlotealrote lazy, sluggardly, loafing; Old Portuguese alrotar to go about begging, Portuguese to mock. 

As for whore, the OED traces it to 

Late Old English hóre , corresponding to (Middle) Low German hóre , Middle Dutch hoere (Dutch hoer ), Old High German huora (Middle High German huere , German hure ), Old Norse hóra < Old Germanic *χōrōn- , < root represented also by Old Norse hórr , Gothic hôrs adulterer, Old Frisian hôr (also overhôr , urhôr ), Old High German huor , Old Norse hór adultery, Middle Low German horre , Middle Dutch huerre , Old High German huorra adulterer ( < *χōrjon-), and Old Frisian (over)~hôra to fornicate, Middle Dutch hoeren , Old High German huorôn (German huren ), Old Norse hóra , Gothic hôrinôn ; Indo-European qār- appears in Latin cārus dear, Old Irish cara friend, caraim I love, Latvian kārs lascivious.

And Spanish puta doesn't seem to have any connection with a Sankrit word for "pure and holy":

puta f. (Noun) (obscene) "whore," "slut"
13th cent. Origin unknown. Perhaps from Vulgar Latin put(t)a, a feminized form of putus "boy." From Proto-Italic *put-o- "boy." Formed from Proto-Indo-European *pu̯t-lo- "son" (see pollo).


Portuguese puto, Italian putto

Oscan puklum "son," Faliscan putellio "little son," Marsian pucle"to the son," Paelignian puclois 'id.,' South Picene puqloh 'id.'

Old Church Slavonic pъtica "bird," Russian pótka 'id.,' Czech pták'id.,' Slovene ptíca 'id.,' Lithuanian pùtė "chicken," Latvian putns"bird"

Sanskrit putrá- "son," "animal young," Avestan puθra- "son"

Basque puta "whore," assumed to be a loanword

[h/t Kate Gladstone]



  1. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

    The only guideline that dabblers in etymology follow is "If x looks or sounds like y, x must be derived from y."

  2. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

    > an early Sanskrit language

    When they start using an indefinite article with Sanskrit is about when I start doubting that they know what they're talking about.

  3. Chris Button said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

    Anatoly Liberman has suggested that Jonathan Swift might have been going with the "put" and "puta" connection in Gulliver's Travels when coining the names "Lilliput" and "Laputa". The none too veiled association of the latter with "la puta" has apparently caused problems with Spanish translations…

  4. Keith said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

    Whenever I see or hear "out-of-the-box" used in place of "outside the box", I doubt the other persons grasp of the English language.

    To be writing in English and to make such an egregious error makes me wonder if the whole thing is a farcical joke.

    Oh, and in modern French, there's the term "putain" for prostitute, and the form "pute" is generally considered a more familiar, vulgar word.

    The Wiktionary entry for this seems quite good to my amateur eye.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 2:42 pm

    How could they get so many things wrong in such a short space? It's as if they were just winging it and saying whatever came into their mind and sounded mystical. One thing that really rubbed me raw is their reference to "an early Sanskrit language" (I wrote this before seeing Ambarish Sridharanarayanan's note), as though there were a bunch of different Sanskrit languages out there.

    I first learned about putto (pl. putti) when studying the amazing robe of Yingpan Man (4th-5th c. AD), one of the more famous among the Tarim Basin mummies. Although Yingpan Man was discovered in the remote, northeast corner of the Takalamakan Desert in Eastern Central Asia, the motifs on his red and gold-colored caftan are decidedly Greco-Roman. You can read about Yingpan Man and see the putti on his caftan in "Yingpan Man’s Fabulous Wealth", by the outstanding science writer Heather Pringle, Archaeology (March 29, 2010).

    One of the common associations of putti is with Aphrodite, and hence with romantic—or erotic—love. There are other reasons why putti might have been connected to harlots, as suggested in this introductory section of the Wikipedia article on them:


    A putto (Italian: [ˈputto]; plural putti [ˈputti]) is a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually naked and sometimes winged. Originally limited to profane passions in symbolism, the putto came to represent the sacred cherub (plural cherubs) (plural cherubim); and in the Baroque period of art, the putto came to represent the omnipresence of God. A putto representing a cupid is also called an amorino (plural amorini).


    And here's the etymological note on putti from the same article:


    The more commonly found form putti is the plural of the Italian word putto. The Italian word comes from the Latin word putus, meaning "boy" or "child". Today, in Italian, putto means either toddler winged angel or, rarely, toddler boy. It may have been derived from the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit word "putra" (meaning "boy child", as opposed to "son"), Avestan puθra-, Old Persian puça-, Pahlavi (Middle Persian) pus and pusar, all meaning "son", and the New Persian pesar "boy, son".


  6. Cervantes said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 2:50 pm

    Another folk etymology for whore is houri, the beings who greet the (male) faithful in paradise in the Koran. Evidently the resemblance is purely coincidental.

  7. Daniel Barkalow said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

    The claim that "puticuli" is "grave" in Latin has got to be a prank. That's not actually a word at all, but "puti culi" does mean "unadulterated asses" (with "culi" being the rude part), so it looks like someone snuck in a commentary on their analysis.

  8. Peter B. Golden said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 3:17 pm

    English "whore" et al. is most probably related to Slavic 'kurva' found in virtually all Slavic languages, with a cognate in Baltic (cf. Latvian kārs noted above) and as a borrowing in Lithuanian, Romanian, Albanian, Yiddish and Hungarian.

  9. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

    @ Daniel Barkalow. The masculine plural noun puticuli occurs in Varro's de Lingua Latina and in Paulus Diaconus's Epitoma Festi.

    Oxford Latin Dictionary translates the word as 'A paupers' graveyard (esp. one at Rome), where the corpses were buried in pits'.

    The etymology offered by the dictionary involves Latin puteus 'well'.

  10. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

    @Keith: “Whenever I see or hear "out-of-the-box" used in place of "outside the box", I doubt the other persons grasp of the English language.
    To be writing in English and to make such an egregious error makes me wonder if the whole thing is a farcical joke.”

    Um, what? That’s a perfectly normal variant on the phrase, and has been for many years.

    Here’s an article from 2012 using it:

  11. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 7:57 pm

    @Daniel Barkalow: as @Suzanne Valkemirer has already pointed out, puticuli we're indeed mass graves right beyond the walls of Rome. Their name, however, certainly has nothing to do with wombs or rebirth. It seems pretty transparently to mean "pitlets," with an unexceptional pattern like the one that yields homunculus or cubicle. However, the Romans themselves also thought it might have something to do with putrefaction. If the link doesn't fall foul of the moderation system, there's more at*/Puticuli.html

  12. Keith said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 3:23 am

    @Michèle Sharik Pituley
    Just because HuffPost used a term in 2012 doesn't make it right, and if you read the article carefully, it even slips into a more correct form, later:

    Staying inside the box in our example, you wouldn't overcome the obstacle or save the day for your customer

    Once we climb outside the box, all sorts of possible solutions emerge.

    The term "out of the box" is in the expression "it just works, straight out of the box"; it means that a device is simple to set up, you don't need to spend time reading the fine manual.

    "Outside the box" means going beyond the confines or constraints of previous ways of thinking.

    I could of written more, but I'll leave it there, because work.

  13. Ursa Major said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 5:08 am

    "I could of written more…"


  14. Peter S said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 5:57 am

    Was there even a "goddess Har"?

    Looking in Google books, I find one that says that Ishtar "was also known as the Harsagkalammite" because she was the principal deity of the city Harsagkalamma.

    Link here

    So is "the goddess Har" is a backformation from Harsagkalammite and harlot?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 8:32 am

    Here is a short video of Yingpan Man (the sexy putti on his robe are clearly visible) arriving at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California in March, 2010.

    After staying at the Bowers until July, Yingpan Man and other antiquities from the Tarim Basin travelled to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where they were exhibited till around the end of the year, and then they came to the Penn Museum, where the exhibition with Yingpan Man opened in February of 2011. See Victor H. Mair, "The Mummies of East Central Asia", Expedition, 52.3 (2010) and "Ancient Mummies of the Tarim Basin: Discovering Early Inhabitants of Eastern Central Asia", Expedition, 58.2 (2016), also the detailed study of Ulf Jäger and VHM in Victor H. Mair, ed., Secrets of the Silk Road: An Exhibition of Discoveries from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China (Santa Ana, Calif.: Bowers Museum, 2010), pp. 54-57; the frontispiece of this large-size catalog shows a section of Yingpan Man's fabulous robe with two curly-haired, short spear-wielding putti displayed in all their naked glory.

  16. mollymooly said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 11:20 am

    I had the same reaction as Keith to "out-of-the-box perspectives", except that I don't recall noticing this conflation before. Then again, maybe I have read it many times without noticing anything awry. I tried Google, but so many matches were strained puns I lost the will to tease out the intended senses.

    The outside-the-box metaphor, in whatever formulation, is management-speak/buzzword/cliché so it's hard to mourn its corruption. On the other hand, "out-of-the-box" is a useful phrase in its original sense, so I would be vexed to see this muddled by a new, somewhat contradictory, sense.

  17. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

    @Keith: “The term "out of the box" is in the expression "it just works, straight out of the box"; it means that a device is simple to set up, you don't need to spend time reading the fine manual.”

    Yes, thank you. I know what that version of the phrase means. (And also what RTFM means)

    What I was pointing out is that “out of the box thinking” is a perfectly normal variant of “thinking outside the box”. That the link I posted as an example *also* uses the other version of the idiom in no way negates my point.

    The Wikipedia article points out that the version often used in Australia is “thinking outside the square”. Do you also “doubt their grasp of the English language”?

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 3:37 pm

    I suspect that the "out-of-the-box" perspectives this site purportedly offers are likely in practice to be "out-of-the-box" in the original/unmuddled sense of "standard-issue/off-the-shelf," at least if one knows which shelf to look on. Certainly this sort of bogus folk-etymology is not a cutting-edge innovation, is it?

  19. Yerushalmi said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 3:56 am

    The "h" in the Hebrew word for "hole" isn't even like that of "whore" – it's a /χ/.

  20. Trogluddite said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 9:56 am

    I'd never noticed this conflation before, either, nor noticed it when reading the post, and I suspect that I have heard or read it before without it catching my attention. Disambiguating the intended meaning in context didn't seem to pose much of a problem in this case; though, intriguingly, the somewhat contradictory analogies don't necessarily clear things up; for example, a product's "out-of-the-box features" could be taken as a positive attribute in either sense (I doubt that marketing folk would bemoan its simultaneous appeal to both frugality and innovation-seeking!)

    However, like you, the phrase's "management speak" roots and cliched use in marketing mean that I won't be losing any sleep over it. Regardless of which meaning is intended by the phrase, most cases will usually be marked as 'nothing to see here' by my 'hyperbole filter' (a.k.a, 'BS detector'.) Now that I think of it, that's probably why I never felt the need to consciously disambiguate the phrase before! ;-)

  21. Lugubert said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    The Swedish word "puttisar" (some 3000 Ghits) features three plural indicators: putti + English 's' + Swedish 'ar'.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 12:01 pm

    "out of the box thinking” is a perfectly normal variant of “thinking outside the box". I respectfully disagree.

  23. Lurp said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

    The Wikipedia article points out that the version often used in Australia is “thinking outside the square”. Do you also “doubt their grasp of the English language”?

    Yes. Yes I do.

  24. DaveK said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 5:03 pm

    I once knew an Argentinian woman who called her cat “puto” as an endearment. She explained it meant something like “cutie” but warned me it was also a derogatory term for a gay man.

  25. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

    @Philip: “"out of the box thinking” is a perfectly normal variant of “thinking outside the box". I respectfully disagree.”

    With me? Or with Keith?

    @Lurp: lol!

  26. martinif said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 9:00 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to form this analysis for an article that I have written for Ancient Origins. As with all of my other articles, I have consulted many other papers which you see on the list of references under the article. I am confident that I have provided the best possible retelling and analysis of the ancient practice of “sacred prostitution” that I can give based on the information that I have accumulated as a Mythographer and Ancient Historian. If you believe that a mistake have been made or that the article is somewhat lacking in its content from an Etymological perspective, then I can only apologize unreservedly and aim to do better in the future. I have always believed that history in its presentation should open a discussion – in this case the article has served its purpose. Therefore, thank you for opening this discussion.

  27. monscampus said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 12:32 am


    I've only ever come across 'out of the box' as a translator, which is one of those technical terms that remain untranslated. And this is another (rather convincing) wiki link

    I often wonder when reading posts here claiming some phrase or expression to be wrong, why the poster is not aware of variants and different regional usage. Variatio delectat – and exists. I remember the verb "to scoff" being discussed here. Just because it's not used outside Britain (where I heard it often), someone wrote there's no such verb. Well, there is, isn't there?

  28. file said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 4:37 am

    Michelle – for info: this puzzle is purported to be the source of the term thinking outside (of the) box.

  29. William S Berry said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

    While I wouldn't characterize the "out-of-the-box" construction as wrong, I would say that it is not the standard idiom, and certainly sounds strange to my ear (rather like the spontaneous usage of an ESL speaker; my Peruvian-born spouse, e.g.. When some thing or other I said or did struck her as funny, she once said "you make me cracked"!). And, yes, as Keith observes, "out-of-the-box" seems most likely to be used in connection with something being ready for use, as is. An audiophile equipment review might say something like: "The McIntosh pre-amp worked well right out of the box".

    @Michèle Sharik Pituley:

    The Wikipedia article points out that the version often used in Australia is “thinking outside the square”. Do you also “doubt their grasp of the English language”?

    I'll reserve judgment on Australians' grasp of English, but the quoted material does not support your argument. "[T]hinking outside the square" is analogous/ parallel to "thinking outside the box", not to "[thinking] out of the box".

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

    Michèle ([Do you disagree] "With me? Or with Keith?"). With neither. I disagree with the assertion that '"out of the box thinking” is a perfectly normal variant of “thinking outside the box"'.

  31. Jay said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 11:51 pm

    @Martinif: Could you please post your sources? The article doesn't give any, unless they're behind the paywall (which is not useful at all.)

  32. ajay said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 5:38 am

    This is clearly just a case of BrE vs AmE. Like the well-known case of "table a motion"; in BrE, if someone tables a motion, they are introducing a proposal for discussion. The idea is that they're putting it on the table for everyone to look at.

    In AmE, the meaning is quite the opposite: it means to defecate on the furniture.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 10:52 am

    "to defæcate on the furniture". Presumably "for everyone to look at" ☺ Anyhow, you chaps "run for office"; we "stand for office", which requires far less effort.

  34. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 2:42 pm

    @file – “Michelle – for info: this puzzle is purported to be the source of the term thinking outside (of the) box.”

    Yes thank you. I’m familiar with that puzzle. I believe I first saw it in Junior High, some 35 years ago. (PS. one L, not 2, please)

    @William S Berry – sorry can’t seem to copy/paste any more in this comment box via my iPhone. Apparently I am allowed only one time per post. Sigh. Anyway, yes thank you, I see the parallel and did see it before I posted. My point in quoting the Australian variant was only that there was yet another variant of the phrase; I didn’t think it was directly parallel to the “out of the box thinking” variant.

    @Philip – then you disagree with me, seeing as how I’m the one making that assertion.

    @ajay – BrE vs AmE – I was coming to the same conclusion. “Out of the box thinking” is fairly common here in the US, at least in my experience. Apparently I’m alone in thinking that “fairly common” means it’s “perfectly normal”.

    Also @ajay- “table a motion” in AmE means to set aside the motion – to talk about it at a later date and has nothing to do with defecation. Or were you just being funny? I’m tired so might have misunderstood.

    Frankly, I’m surprised at the objections I’m getting to this. I pointed out an instance from six years ago with the phrase being used plus pointed to the Wikipedia article plus included my own “anecdata”. Why are y’all so insistent that this variant doesn’t exist? It’s very clearly in use and has been for a while.

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