Tuesday, 29 June 2010


…talking of which (yesterday’s blog), why is the dental fricative in brothel ˈbrɒθl̩ voiceless?

There are two reasons why we might expect to find ð rather than θ in this word.

First, the apparent cognates in other languages have a voiced consonant. The French word is bordel bɔʀdɛl, the Italian is bordello borˈdɛllo, the German is Bordell bɔrˈdɛl.

Second, the spelling th in this position (following a stressed vowel in a disyllable) regularly corresponds to the pronunciation ð: father, mother, brother, other, bother, feather, gather, whether, rather, slither, smithy, swarthy, worthy, Swithin. True, there are no other words in -thel except the names Bethel and Ethel, which both have θ. Even so, the pattern is very clear. Words spelt with medial th and pronounced θ are otherwise just those of Latin or Greek origin: author, cathode, lethal, method. But brothel looks and feels Germanic.

The OED reveals the reason for the exceptionality of brothel. It’s really not a cognate of bordel at all. The etymology goes back to Old English.
ME. broþel, f. OE. broðen ruined, degenerate, pa. pple. of bréoðan to go to ruin
The modern sense arises from confusion with an entirely different word BORDEL (q.v.); 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 obs., and it remains only as the substitute of the original bordel.


  1. "The OED reveals the reason for the exceptionality of brothel." - I don't feel it does, since "brothel" is apparently still of Germanic origin, not of Latin/Greek.

  2. I have always said it with /ð/ and intend to go on doing so. Fortunately, it's not a word that comes up much.

  3. Jack Windsor Lewis asked me to post this for him:
    The “exceptionality” of the current *pronuncation* of “brothel” is not “revealed” at all by Murray’s OED1 comment that John quotes. The important fact to remember about the word brothel is that in modern times it’s very much a book word. The digraph is completely ambiguous but I shd say that becoz it has a “notional” value for most people which is /θ/ not /ð/ it consequently has acquired a spelling pronunciation which has replaced the more phonologically regular development it formerly exhibited and still does across the Atlantic to an extent. Even as recently as 1917 in EPD1 Daniel Jones gave the /ð/ pronunciation as first version tho he had omitted it altogether two decades later. In 1797 Walker gave only the /ð/ form and still by 1845 Beniowski agreed. The great 1961 Webster gave a /ð/ variant; so do the Merriam Webster online and ODP.

  4. Kenyon & Knott also give /ð/ as a variant pronunciation. It's not a word I use very often, but both pronunciations "sound right" to me.

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