The Grammarphobia Blog

A bordello on the waterfront

Q: On a visit to a Canadian lake, I saw bord de l’eau signs along the edge of the water. The French looked to me a lot like “bordello.” Is there a connection? Bordellos were frequently near the waterfront since sailors were good customers.

A: No, there’s no connection between bord de l’eau and “bordello”—at least no direct connection—though the two usages may have had an ancestor in common back in ancient times.

English adopted “bordello” in the late 16th century from Italian, in which bordello means a brothel, an uproar, or a mess.

The earliest citation for “bordello” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Every Man in His Humor, a 1598 play by Ben Jonson: “From the Burdello, it might come as well.”

In the early 1300s, however, English borrowed “bordel,” a now obsolete word for a house of prostitution, from Old French, where bordel meant a cabin, hut, or brothel, according to the OED.

Both the Italian and Old French words are derived from borda, the medieval Latin term for a hut. So a bordello was originally a little hut for prostitution.

The OED says the etymology here “is still wanting,” but it speculates that borda may have once meant a “thing of boards.” In Old English, bord meant, among other things, a board or plank.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Old English word, as well as similar ones in other Germanic languages, may have come from—or been influenced by—two different prehistoric Germanic roots:

“Some evidence suggests that the Germanic word was a fusion of two different but related words: one that had senses related to ‘plank, table, shield’; the other with senses related to ‘border, rim, side of a ship.’ ”

So the “bord-” in “bordello” may come from the “plank” sense in prehistoric German, while the bord in bord de l’eau (like the “board” in “seaboard”) may come from the “edge” sense. (We had a post a while back that discussed “seaboard.”)

Check out our books about the English language