Red light district

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Fri Apr 28 02:09:14 UTC 2000

On Tue, 25 Apr 2000, Peter A. McGraw wrote:

> The following message was posted to a railroad listserv that I subscribe
> to.  It sounds like a folk etymology, but a CURSORY search of Am.Sp. and a
> couple of dictionaries didn't yield anything better.  I thought I had a
> vague memory of a discussion on this list sometime, but didn't find
> anything in the archive.  The first citations in the OED are American
> (Boston and NYC), from 1900.
> Does anybody know the real origin of "red light district"?

In the world of real etymological scholarship on phrases, usually the best
one can do is to shed light on the "when" of origins; the "why" is usually

Here is earlier evidence than the OED's first use:

a1898 W. C. Brann _Brann the Iconoclast_ (1911) II. 99  The _Post_ next
proceeded to publish a directory of Houston's redlight district, giving
names and addresses of the "madames," the number of their "boarders" and
the condition of the merchandise thrown upon the market.

Fred R. Shapiro                             Coeditor (with Jane Garry)
Associate Librarian for Public Services     TRIAL AND ERROR: AN OXFORD
  and Lecturer in Legal Research            ANTHOLOGY OF LEGAL STORIES
Yale Law School                             Oxford University Press, 1998
e-mail: fred.shapiro at               ISBN 0-19-509547-2

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