Brothel/Bordel.

The OED’s ancient (1888) etymology for brothel goes as follows:

Etymology: Middle English broþel, < Old English broðen ruined, degenerate, past participle of bréoðan to go to ruin: a variant of brethel n. ["A worthless fellow, good-for-nothing, wretch."]

The modern sense arises from confusion with an entirely different word bordel n. (q.v. [ < Old French bordel ‘cabin, hut, brothel’]); the brothel was originally a person, the bordel a place. But the combinations bordel-house and brothel’s house ran together in the form brothel-house, which being shortened to brothel, the personal sense of this word became obsolete, and it remains only as the substitute of the original bordel.

That’s still about as much as can confidently be said, but there are a couple of weaselly bits there (right at the start the punctuation between the two forms in “broþel, < Old English broðen,” and later on “a variant of”), and etymologist Anatoly Liberman, ever eager to explore new terrain, sinks his teeth into them in this OUPblog essay. Among the interesting things he has to say is that bordel “existed in Old French”:

Its root (bord-) is a Germanic word, akin in sound and meaning to English board. From an etymological point of view, bordel designated a small board house, a hovel (-el is a diminutive suffix) and only later acquired the meaning that has stayed without change to this day.

He goes on to say “I would risk defending and developing an etymology offered in The Century Dictionary but disregarded by all later authorities,” and although I don’t necessarily buy it, it makes enjoyable reading (though Liberman’s odd puritanism can be offputting; he talks about “the unhealthy popularity of our F-word in the remotest countries of the planet”). Anyway, read the whole thing if the topic is of interest to you; thanks for the link, Kobi!

Comments

  1. Oskar Sigvardsson says:

    I don’t know this contributes anything, but the Swedish word for “brothel” is bordell, and the etymology for the word listed in the Swedish Academy Dictionary is:

    [compare Danish bordel, Dutch bordeel, German bordell, Old English bordel; from French borde, equivalent to Italian bordello, dimunitive of Old French borde and Italian borda respectively, meaning "wooden shack, hut", which is probably a loan from Germanic languages and identical to BORD, "board, plank"]

    The word bord in modern Swedish doesn’t actually mean “board, plank”, it means “table”, but that’s a recent thing. The entry doesn’t mention brothel.

    I should note that this entry is ancient too, it was published in 1919 and the spelling of the words in it is delightfully archaic (they’ve been writing this darn dictionary for more than a century and still has only gotten to T). Here’s a link to the full entry:

    http://g3.spraakdata.gu.se/saob/show.phtml?filenr=1/37/148.html

  2. Thanks, I love comparing etymologies! (I took the liberty of changing your quoted citation forms to italics for easier reading; I hope that’s OK.)

  3. Oskar Sigvardsson says:

    No problem, I would’ve done so myself if I knew how! While you’re at it, you could change the last “an” to an “and” after “Germanic languages”, that was a typo.

  4. Done! (You can italicize things by putting them between <i> and </i>.)

  5. Spanish dictionary said “burdel” came from Catalan “bordell”or Provençal “bordel”. I’ve also found this word in an ancient dictionary (1495). Another ancient dictionary (1591) translates to English “burdel”: “the stewes” (sic), a word with a curious euphemistic etymology.

  6. Bordel as a brothel started as bordeaux (plural), spelt and pronounced exactly like the city and the wine. In bordeaux veritas.

    In colloquial French that kind of house is quite frequently mentioned under an English name: un boxon. Just like bordel, the popular boxon is also used to describe something very untidy, a great disorder, a mess.

    In Mauritian Creole the word for a bordello is loka. Some people talk about a possible Bantu origin, suggesting a link with the word laka used by the Taita people of East Africa to mean ‘commit adultery’, but a shortening of location is also mentioned. In short, the etymology of loka is a mess.

  7. When I just came to Paris, I was always amused by the propensity of Computer Science professors to replace everything by “truc” and “machin”. For a collection of things, though, the word used is “bazaar”. Years passed before I realized that the word is a euphemism for the other b-word.

  8. Always good to check etymologies. I woulda bought it if you told me it was a case of r-metathesis and weakening of d to ð.

  9. “bazaar” … a euphemism for the other b-word.

    Which itself isn’t very strong, and can be heard in polite company to refer to a messy or disorderly place, or the mess or jumble itself, without any connotation of bawdry. E.g., the author of “Range ta Chambre” [http://psyblog.over-blog.fr/article-26763553.html] doesn’t think twice about referring to his/her child’s room as a brothel (or “in a brothel-state”): “si la chambre de notre enfant est en bordel”.

  10. I’ve heard one of Grieg’s great tunes sung to
    “Mummy ran a knocking shop, knocking shop, knocking shop
    Mummy ran a knocking shop on the Portobello Road”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRpzxKsSEZg

  11. “Liberman’s odd puritanism can be offputting”

    Sometimes amusing: In “The infamous C-word” he writes does not write it out in full; but in a follow-up, while he maintains this policy when writing the taboo word in his own voice, he leaves it in in direct quotes and when discussing the homonym meaning “splice cut”.

  12. Good lord. From the second link:

    Perhaps this is the result of overuse; c**t has become a unisex noun. Other than that, there are three attitudes toward the word. Some people never let it pass their lips. God bless them. I am not a prude, but in my experience, those who revel in foul language do so because they command a minuscule vocabulary.

    I don’t understand how anyone professionally involved with language and linguistics can think, let alone write, such twaddle. Also, “I am not a prude”! God bless him.

  13. Israeli Hebrew has bardak, supposedly from Russian ‘brothel’, in the sense of collective disorderly behavior. The word sound Turkish, but the only Russian bardak I could find is a Turkish loan meanning ‘glass’ or ‘pot’. The phonetic resemblance to bordel, etc. is intriguing.

  14. Russian Wiktionary says “Возможно, знач. ‘публичный дом’ возникло под влиянием франц. заимствования бордель” [It is possible that the sense 'brothel' arose under the influence of Fr. bordel].

  15. John Cowan says:

    The pissin’ notion that pissin’ people who use pissin’ profanity a whole pissin’ lot lack a proper pissin’ vocabulary is a pissin’ standard trope.

  16. Thanks, Hat. The Hebrew Wiktionary suggests something similar, namely that Russian Russianized bordel with an -ак. In other words, nobody knows for sure, just as in English.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    The “splice cut” sense is mentioned by implication in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it episode in the Aubrey/Maturin series. Stephen thinks his ears are deceiving him …

  18. John Cowan says:

    I can’t imagine what you mean by “mentioned by implication”. Here it is (from Master and Commander, the first book):

    ‘Where’s the bosun? Now, Mr Watt, let me see the tackles rigged: you want a hard-eye becket on that block. Where’s the breeching?’

    ‘Almost ready, sir,’ said the sweating, harassed bosun. .’l'm working the cunt-splice myself.’

    ‘Well,’ said Jack, hurrying off to where the stern-chaser hung poised above the Sophie’s quarter-deck, ready to plunge through her bottom if gravity could but have its way, ‘a simple thing like a cunt-splice will not take a man-of-war’s bosun long, I believe. Set those men to work, Mr Lamb, if you please: this is not fiddler’s green.’

    Now when Jack tells Babbington to tell his father that Jack’s bankers are Hoares, that’s an implication.

  19. I think it is the reader (and maybe by implication Stephen) who thinks his ears are deceiving him.

  20. I don’t understand how anyone professionally involved with language and linguistics can think, let alone write, such twaddle.

    It gets better! Under “Old and Bad New Jokes” you will find arch criticism of such degenerate, hooting-of-apes-like constructions as “to severely damage.”

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Jesús: Spanish dictionary said “burdel” came from Catalan “bordell”or Provençal “bordel”.

    This seems to be right.

    Siganus: Bordel as a brothel started as bordeaux (plural), spelt and pronounced exactly like the city and the wine. In bordeaux veritas.

    Not quite. In older French le bordeau (from bordel, like beau,/i> from earlier bel ‘beautiful’) meant a hut or small shack. I suppose that prostitutes received their clients in such shacks. Later the word became more respectable and the Provençal (Occitan) cognate bordel came to be used in French to mean a house of prostitution. (From the TLFI).

    In colloquial French that kind of house is quite frequently mentioned under an English name: un boxon. Just like bordel, the popular boxon is also used to describe something very untidy, a great disorder, a mess.

    Le boxon (or bocson) is a new one to me in both senses! But the TLFI has it, as a synonym of le bocard which is new to me as well. Both words are attested from the 19th century and are of unclear origin.

    minus273: When I just came to Paris, I was always amused by the propensity of Computer Science professors to replace everything by “truc” and “machin”.

    This was hardly restricted to Computer Science professors! These words (both masculine) mean something like ‘gadget’ or ‘thingamajig’ and can be applied to just about anything. Machin and its feminine Machine can also be used instead of the name, and said about and even to a person whose name you can’t remember or don’t want to bother trying to remember. Machin can be elaborated into Machinchouette, Trucmachinchouette or Machintrucchouette, or at least they could when I was young. It is likely that chouette (‘barn-owl’, but this meaning is irrelevant here) is a deliberate replacement for the colourless chose ‘thing’.

    For a collection of things, though, the word used is “bazaar”. Years passed before I realized that the word is a euphemism for the other b-word.

    I would use un bazar both for a shop selling all sorts of cheap things, especially for the household, and also for a mass of things such as accumulate in a teenager’s bedroom or a hoarder’s dwelling. It never occurred to me that this was a euphemism. I had never heard bordel used in this meaning until I came to work in a French department, whose male members (from France) used it extensively. My mother, who did not normally use words considered obscene, used le foutoir for this meaning, but I am sure she would have been shocked to learn the origin of the word.

    D-AW: [le bazar = le bordel] Which itself isn’t very strong, and can be heard in polite company to refer to a messy or disorderly place, or the mess or jumble itself, without any connotation of bawdry.

    As I said above, I had never encountered this use, even though having spent 7 years in a mixed-sex secondary school, followed by 5 years as a student in Paris, I would surely have heard it at least from male students if it had been as widespread as it seems to be today.

    E.g., the author of “Range ta Chambre” [http://psyblog.over-blog.fr/article-26763553.html] doesn’t think twice about referring to his/her child’s room as a brothel (or “in a brothel-state”): “si la chambre de notre enfant est en bordel”.

    I would say en désordre, but I am behind the times linguistically, and I could also say sa chambre, c’est un vrai bazar or dans sa chambre, c’est le bazar. I would not use en with either bazar or bordel since to me those words refer primarily to a place, not a state.

    It was also after encountering those French colleagues in (English) Canada that I heard the adjective bordélique, a relatively recent coinage. I was shocked! One of the colleagues in question referred to his wife as bordélique because she was not as tidy as he was (with five children, an impeccably tidy house was not her top priority).

  22. mollymooly says:

    One of the colleagues in question referred to his wife as bordélique because she was not as tidy as he was.

    cf. English “slut” and “slattern”, which drifted in the opposite semantic direction.

  23. “The word bord in modern Swedish doesn’t actually mean “board, plank”, it means “table”, but that’s a recent thing.”

    An ancient usage, in English, apparently (c 1000AD in the OED), and now, of course, only generally found in metaphorical or extended uses, eg the board of a company (the people who sit around the table making decisions), “board and lodging” (eating at the table, sleeping in a bed), sideboard and, originally, cupboard.

  24. >Marie-lucie
    As for “bordeau”, we have the word “borda” that means hut or sack in the Pyrenees destined for refuge to shepherds and cattle. Our dictionary said it came from old Frankish “borda” (or “bord” in Wiki): board.

  25. Marie-Lucie: As I said above, I had never encountered this use, even though having spent 7 years in a mixed-sex secondary school, followed by 5 years as a student in Paris,

    I’m surprised by this, since (perhaps like your mother with foutoir) I first came to know bordel in the sense of big mess (from a small number of childhood interactions with French francophones) and was mildly perturbed to learn the literal or etymological sense in my early teens. But then, same went for cul-de-sac and a number of other French expressions (con I suppose links up a couple of the threads in this discussion).

    I’m hoping this n-gram chart will embed. If not, you may plot “grand bordel” and “en bordel” (trying to isolate the “mess” usages with these) in the French corpus. It shows that you may be right that the expression has gained currency recently.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    bordel = désordre: I am much older than most of you, that’s the reason for the discrepancy in our respective linguistic experiences. Since I haven’t lived in France for many years, when I go back to visit my family I notice things like that. I have nephews and nieces in their 20′s and 30′s there and I have never heard any of them use the term.

    D-AW, I don’t think you linked to the n-gram (I believe you without seeing ti).

    board = table
    For a long time rooms in European houses seldom had assigned uses with furniture meant to stay in place, and royal courts often travelled from place to place in both peace and war, taking with them portable furniture (boards, trestles, folding seats and cots, etc) which was set up onsite as needed. In the Bayeux tapestry and other old pictures there are scenes of people seated for a meal, not at a table (which would have fixed legs) but behind a board set up on trestles. The diners sat along one side of the board, and servers had room to move along the other side to bring the food and take the empty plates, etc away, using another raised board (the sideboard) to hold those items temporarily.

    Table is of course a borrowing from French, from Latin tabula, the diminutive ending of which suggests a small, low table (as used along with the couches where wealthy Romans reclined while eating).

  27. Marie-Lucie, you can use that link to a scan of page 266 of the Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (Le Robert) and start reading what is said about bordel as from “Le sens spécialisé de “lieu de prostitution”, ancien (v. 1200), l’a emporté, d’abord au pluriel bordeaux [...]”

    When it comes to boxon, this was a word I had never heard of before going to France as a student.

  28. J. W. Brewer says:

    In olden times in England, the Sarum wedding service had the bride promise “to be bonaire and buxom, in bedde and at bord,” with “bord” meaning “table” (the priest’s lines were of course in Latin, but the few lines for the couple themselves to say were sensibly in the vernacular). Alas this striking phrase did not survive the revision of the service at the Reformation.

  29. Russian “bardak” (disorder, mess) have long lost transparent links with (anyway nonexistent / archaic) bordel’, but I’m sure many Russian youths just like myself have been lectured by the grade school literature teachers to not use “bardak” in writing because “under the old regime”, it served as a euphemism for a whorehouse. So the notion of this etymological link is ingrained among the Russians (whether such a link true or just suspected)

    But on light of bordello => brothel transformation in English (commandeering a similar-sounding, obscure word to be used as a euphemism), a similar bordel’ =&gt’ bardak transformation in Russian sounds very plausible.

    It’s interesting that a synonym of “bardak” is бедлам which sort of sounds like another sound-substitute euphemism, but is explained as an English borrowing “bedlam” <= Bethlem Royal Hospital (lunatic asylum). And according to Wiktionary, English Bedlam may too old to have been influenced by “brothel”

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Siganus: Ah, your version did not say quite the same thing as the dictionary, so I misunderstood. You wrote Bordel as a brothel started as bordeaux (plural),
    which suggested that the word itself started in the plural. That’s what I objected to. I think the intended meaning was: the word “bordel” meaning ‘shack, etc’ had a plural “bordeaux” which acquired the meaning ‘brothel’, which later passed on to the singular word’. But singular bordeau also existed.

    Since the city of Bordeaux is just at the frontier between two Occitan varieties, Gascon on the south side and Limousin on the North side, it is not clear how much French was spoken there and how much Occitan. Bordel (or bourdel,/i>) is compatible with both languages, but bordeau can only be French.

  31. John Cowan says:

    The French Wikipedia s.v. Bordeaux says:

    Le nom de la localité est attesté pour la première fois sous la forme Burdigala au ier siècle apr. J.C. Ensuite le toponyme est mentionné sous diverses formes au Moyen Âge, Burdegale, certaines monnaies anciennes portent aussi les noms de Burdeghla et Burdiale. Une forme en langue d’oc Bordelh apparaît dans le troisième couplet du sirventès de Bertran de Born D’un sirventes no m qual far longo ganda (« Sai de Bordelh, ni dels Cascos part landa »), et la forme latine Burdellum, dans une lettre de 1147 à l’abbé Suger. Les premières formes gasconnes sont Bordeu, attesté en 128026, et Bordel. Au xixe siècle Luchaire indique que le paysan gascon prononçait aussi Burdéu devenant sous sa forme moderne Bordèu. La forme française de Bordeaux représente une francisation du gascon Bordèu en Bourdeaux ou Bordeaux par analogie avec l’ancien pluriel de Bordel « petite maison » et qui explique bien en revanche les autres noms de lieux du type Bordeaux, Bourdeaux.

    [...]

    Par le passé, plusieurs étymologies fantaisistes ont été proposées pour l’antique Burdigala, comme Burgos Gallos (le bourg gaulois) par Isidore de Séville ou, en 1695, dans le Mercure de France « la bourde et la jalle ». Dans ses Recherches sur la ville de Bordeaux, l’abbé Baurein se basait sur les racines celtiques burg (la ville) et cal (le port), à savoir * burg et * cal, avec astérisques car ces termes ne sont pas directement attestés dans les langues celtiques, ni sous cette forme, ni avec ce sens. En outre * Burg-i-cal-a peut difficilement expliquer phonétiquement le nom antique de Bordeaux, à savoir Burdigala, à moins de supposer une altération, non démontrée par les formes anciennes.

    Le nom de Burdigala peut s’analyser sur la base de deux éléments, à savoir deux racines aquitaniennes (ou aquitaniques) *burd- et *gala signifiant respectivement « boueux » et « crique ». *Burd- serait la variante d’un pré-latin *bard- qui est aussi à l’origine du nom du village basque de Bardos. *Gala est issu d’un pré-latin *cal- traduit par « abri, crique » et dont dérive le mot « calanque ». Ainsi, selon Michel Morvan, la signification primitive de Burdigala devrait être « crique ou abri dans les marais

    The English WP adds:

    In historical times, around 300 BCE it was the settlement of a Celtic tribe, the Bituriges Vivisci, who named the town Burdigala, probably of Aquitainian origin. The name Bourde is still the name of a river south of the city.

  32. mollymooly:

    There’s an old song:
    They call my wife the queen of sluts
    She killed the goose and fed me the guts

    which clearly refers to poor housekeeping and not anything sexual.

  33. David Eddyshaw says:

    @John Cowan: too long since I read the first book. The “by implication” instance is in a later book (unfortunately can’t remember which), where Maturin overhears Aubrey giving orders on deck and is somewhat taken aback.

    Not sure exactly how rude (as opposed to merely vulgar) the word would have seemed at the time – its use as abuse is more recent, as I dimly recall from discussions in this very place. Or possibly LL.

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