With allegations against Harvey Weinstein mounting, many more women are coming forward to accuse others—from prominent figures like director James Toback to everyday men divulged in the powerful #MeToo stories—of sexual assault and harassment. These men, as we might say, are pigs. But if we look to origin of the word harass, we might say they are dogs.
From Hare! to harassment
The word harass starts hounding the English language in the 17th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds harass for “lay waste and plunder” in 1618. It next cites the great English mind, Francis Bacon, in 1622 for “trouble or vex by repeated attacks” (“to harass and weary the English”) and in 1626 for “wear out, tire out” (“harassed with a long and wearisome march”).
English borrowed harass from the French harasser, which variously meant “to tire out, vex, disquiet, harry, torment” in the 16th century. While its deeper roots aren’t exactly certain, etymologists suspect harasser is based on harer, “to set dogs on,” formed from Hare!, a shout which so excited them.
Yes, the word harassment likely originates as hunting cry.
Over time, the French harasser settled into a modern meaning of “exhaust.” In English, harass narrowed to a more a specific sense, as the OED defines it:
To subject (an individual or group) to unwarranted (and now especially unlawful) physical or psychological intimidation, usually persistently over a period.
The OED first attests this harass in another great English mind—not to mention early feminist and mother of Frankenstein’s Mary Shelley—Mary Wollstonecraft in her 1788 novel, Mary: A Fiction: “As this man made a private fortune by harassing the tenants of the person to whom he was deputy, little was to be expected from his forbearance.”
The OED’s next citation comes from another great English writer, Jane Austen. In her 1817 Northanger Abbey, Austen writes: “I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms…; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”
Allow me repeat that: “strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man who would make me dance with me, and distressed me by his nonsense.” (Queer, here, originally meant “peculiar, odd, eccentric,” not taking on its pejorative sense until the early 20th century.)
Why am I not surprised some of the earliest evidence for the modern meanings of harass come from women?
Since Wollstonecraft and Shelley, harass has further narrowed to “sexual intimidation.” For the specific phrase sexual harassment, the OED points us to a 1971 article in the Yale News Daily:
‘We insist,’ said one of the women, ‘that sex harassment is an integral component of sex discrimination.’ ‘Men perceive women in sexual categories and not in professional categories,’ she continued. The complaint of sexual harassment was apparently a ‘new idea’ to the H.E.W. [Health, Education, and Welfare] team.
Again, I have to repeat: “The complaint of sexual harassment was apparently a ‘new idea’.” If that doesn’t make you howl in anger…
Let’s hope the Weinstein saga—thanks to all the brave women who have been speaking up and out since the story first broke—puts these dogs at bay.