Brothel. The word surfaced this week in a suitably sordid way, when Lamar Odom was found near death in one. And it came to mind again just yesterday, when I was enjoying some downtime with Ian, who is home from college on fall break. Regarding the word twice in one week somehow led me on a strange mental odyssey—one so unusual that I decided today to take some time to retrace my steps and map them.
Be patient with me now, as I walk you through my peculiar mental landscape. I shall be your Virgil through its twisted, barren trails. Abandon logic, all ye who enter here! And ignore the tumbleweeds—those are just ideas so fleeting that I forgot them as soon as the light bulb flickered on.
Sail with me down the Stream of Consciousness to yesterday, as I sat with Ian during a lazy afternoon, switching channels between baseball’s playoff contests and an early season San Jose Sharks hockey game. The Viagra and Cialis commercials were airing back-to-back as the teams clashed on grass and ice. Ahhh…the beauty of October, when we can watch our favorite two sports, pretty much all day long.
For as long as anyone can remember, The San Jose Sharks (and a few other NHL teams) have celebrated home goals by blasting Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part II” (“nuh nuh nuh NAAAH nuh – Hey! – nuh nuh nuh”). But yesterday, it was not to be—they played a different and unfamiliar song. Ian explained that the Sharks have recently jettisoned Glitter’s music due to the singer’s unsavory conviction on pedophilia charges. It seems that he, too, frequented brothels—in Vietnam and Cambodia—where young girls were the targets of his criminal proclivities. He is now serving a 16-year sentence in a prison on the Isle of Wight.
This episode brought me back to a day, over twenty years ago, when I was assigned the journalistic duty of tracking down Mr. Glitter for an interview on why and how his song had become an American hockey anthem. It was a tedious task, finding a has-been British glam rocker to fill a three-minute void on a radio news program. And yet my heart soared when I finally dialed the correct number and heard his crisp voice on the other end of the line: “Glittah heah.” Knowing what I do now, I just want to take a shower.
But our odyssey promptly veers in a new direction, back to medieval times, for when the subject of brothels surfaced this week, it was not the tawdry, celebrity-tinged details that grabbed me, but the word itself. Honestly, until Monday, I hadn’t seen “brothel” in print or thought of the word in years. “Brothel” somehow brings to mind The Canterbury Tales, or maybe a bawdy scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Brothels are a throwback, with an appellation to match—one that sounds squarely Anglo-Saxon in origin.
As it happens, I am currently reading The Wake, a novel penned by British author Paul Kingsnorth, in what he calls a “shadow language,” derived from Old English and Anglo-Saxon words. The action takes place at the start of the Norman conquest in 1066, and it features an unlikeable anti-hero, Buccmaster of Holland, who dolefully and repeatedly laments, as he watches England burn, “All is broc. All is gan.”
Buccmaster, a bitter, lonely and narcissistic character who wanders all over medieval England muttering to himself, seems a ripe candidate for a visit to a brothel, if ever there was one. His message is as crude as it is practical: “Saw thy flax plough thy ground fucc thy wifman drinc well for sum thing is cuman to thu from ofer the waters and this year will be lic no other in the lifs of all men in this land.” Yet it is not Buccmaster, but a different anti-hero—a 6’10’’ drug-addled former professional athlete and Kardashian clan member—whom we find in a brothel this week.
And lo! Here is an interesting convergence, for the etymology of the word “brothel,” taken in backwards steps, moves thusly: In the 15th century, it meant “prostitute,” in the 14th, century, “vile, worthless person” of either sex. It derives from the Old English breoðan, “deteriorate, go to ruin;” reaching further back, it stems from the Proto-Germanic breuthan, “to be broken.”* Hence, we learn that “brothel” has “broken” at its very core. In my mind’s ear, I can hear it now: Buccmaster intoning mournfully, “Lamar is broc. Lamar is gan.”
Try not to get the bends now as we emerge from our voyage, out of my mind’s abyss. Let us do as the ancients did, and wash ourselves in the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Lamar Odom, Gary Glitter, and Buccmaster of Holland don’t really belong together. This unlikely trio should be left to fade away in my mind’s strange purgatory.
Yet now, if you ever cross my path, you will know why it is that I can never seem to get anything done. My mind wanders ceaselessly, through a tangle of tunnels and traps.
Let us return to the bright world without care, and come forth to our comfy chairs, to watch, again, the Sharks.
*Online Etymology Dictionary