Brothel derives, through the Middle English broþel, from the Old English bréoðan, meaning ruined or degenerate. It is a variant of the word brethel, meaning a good-for-nothing, a wretch.
The original sense was of a worthless or degenerate person and first appears in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, A text, which was written c.1367-70, with the surviving manuscripts dating to c.1390:
For nou is vche Boye, Bold Broþel, an[d?] oþer, To talken of þe Trinite, to beon holden A syre.
(For now is each boy (commoner), bold brothel, and other, to talk of the Trinity, to be looked upon as a sire.)
It also appears c.1393 in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis:
Quod Achab thanne, There is one, A brothel, which Micheas hight.
(Said Achab then, There is one, A brothel, who is named Micheas.)
A century later, the term was used to refer to a prostitute. From the 1535 Works of Bishop John Fisher:
Why doeth a common brothel take no shame of hir abhomination?
The sense meaning an establishment that houses prostitutes comes from the form brothel-house, from the 1493 Festivall:
He...went agayne to a brodelles hous.
By 1593, the -house had been dropped and this clipped form has survived. From the Works of Henry Smith:
Some [return] unto the taverns, and some unto the alehouses...and some unto brothels.
Despite the similarity in appearance and meaning, the word is etymologically unrelated to bordel or bordello, which come from Portuguese and Italian respectively.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton