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To prostitute simply means to offer for sale

Friday September 2 2011


A reader wants to know if the Latin element ‘pro’ in the word ‘prostitute’ has any positive significance.

Does it mean “in favour of” or “standing in for” — as in “promotion”, “prognosticate” and “proconsul”?

A proconsul is a person who “acts for” the consul in an imperial power’s possession abroad.

To prognosticate literally means “to know in advance”, “to foretell”, “to prophesy” or “to signify”.

Prognosis (noun) is composed of the Greek preposition pro (“in advance of”) and noun gnosis, “knowledge” or “science”.

A gnostic is a “person who knows”, that is to say, a member of an ancient African religious movement which taught that you could know god only by examining the bodily structures of the god’s creations.


An agnostic — a word made famous by the Scottish philosopher David Hume — is the opposite (“he who does not know”).

“To promote” is to move a person to higher level of gradation in her or his “calling”.

Literally, then, “promotion” is “motion upwards”, that is, “motion in favour of”.

But, in these examples, the stem can still make sense even if you remove the prepositional element “pro”.

Even if the verb “to gnosticate” — which would mean “to know” or “to come to grips with” — does not exist, the noun “gnosis” does.

The question is: Can the element “pro” be detached from the noun “prostitute” or the abstract noun “prostitution” or the verb “to prostitute” without fatally injuring the stem?

Does the word prostitute mean “in favour of” or “on behalf of” or “in advance of a “stitute”?

But the word “stitute” (that is, “prostitute” minus “pro”) does not exist. No, the word prostitute is irreducible.

The reason is that it comes from an atomic Latin word which you cannot break down into smaller constituents.

The English adjective “atomic” is, indeed, instructive.

The noun “atom” comes ultimately from the Nilo-Coptic god-name atum (who epitomised the indivisibility of matter after a certain level of splitting.

Such Egypt-trained Greco-Roman atomists as Democritus, Epicurus, Leucippus and Lucretius were the ones who took atum into Hellenic Greek as atomos (“the unbreakable”).

The point, then, is that the Latin verb prostituere, from which English has derived the verb “to prostitute”, cannot yield to any form of reduction.

But the Latin prostituere was a very innocent word. It meant nothing more degrading than “to offer something for sale”.

In this early sense, “to prostitute” was merely to display goods for possible buyers.

“To prostitute” still means something like that, except that, where this verb is concerned, the idea of “offering for sale” has become increasingly negative.

It means to turn one’s body into a commercial commodity and, metaphorically, to put one’s skills to economically useless or morally despicable uses, such as mercenaries are infamous for.

Yet much “work” must be involved in it. Otherwise, such policy prostitutes as NGOs would not insist that prostitutes are “commercial sex workers”.

But Okot p’Bitek was the one who said it “like it is”. He once defined prostitution as “nocturnal commerce and industry”.