Still in the Bottleneck, or, Chasing for the First Fiasco
The word fiasco reached the European languages in the 19th century: in Germany Heine introduced it from French (1837); in Sweden it appeared ten years later; in England in 1854, and so on. Although an Italian word meaning “bottle,” fiasco, along with its cognates in the other Romance languages, is, most probably, of Germanic origin, so that Engl. flask and German Flasche may be native (by contrast, flagon, from flacon, from some form like flascon, originated in France and went to England from there). The reasons fiasco keeps baffling etymologists need not cause surprise: it emerged as slang, and the sources of slang are usually hard to trace.
Three moments complicate the search. First, despite the fact that fiasco is, undoubtedly, Italian, the phrase far fiasco spread to other languages from French. (In texts, the phrase far fiasco turned up before the bare noun fiasco “mistake.”) Second, if far fiasco means “to make a bottle,” with a later change to “make a mistake and fail,” it is unclear why fiasco “bottle” has no article. Third, as far as we can judge, the phrase was first used only with reference to actors’ bad performance, a fact that leaves us wondering where bottles come in: bad eggs and rotten tomatoes would be more in place.
Far fiasco has no medieval roots. Therefore, occasional mentions of Roman customs, failed conspiracies (the hero of one of them was Count Giovanni L. Fiesco, 1547), and the like need not bother us. Only one of the more reasonable guesses, from Stainer and Barrett’s Dictionary of Musical Terms, may be quoted for completeness’ sake: “The fistula pastoricia was blown by the Romans to signify their dissatisfaction and it is possible that the present term arose from the similarity between the shape of a flageolet (flaschinet), and a flask.”
The literature on the origin of fiasco is not vast, but not negligible either: entries in the explanatory and etymological dictionaries of most European languages and about a dozen notes and articles. Some conjectures are copied from book to book, but all authors hasten to say that no definitive solution exists. Fiasco aligns itself with the words I have discussed in the recent past: their meaning is so discouraging (the posts were devoted to charade and charlatan) that etymological frustration should be taken for granted: these words “have a reputation to live up to.” As a rule, fiasco is referred to the production of Venetian glass. Allegedly, when a glassblower spoiled some beautiful object, it was made into a common bottle. Or when an apprentice ruined his assignment and ended up with a pitiful bottle instead of what he had hoped to produce, the outcome was a fiasco. Or a stupid tourist would witness the work of professional glassblowers and decide that the process was easy. He would be allowed to use the tube, but the result would be only nondescript pear-shaped bottles, much to the merriment of the bystanders, who would shout fiasco! at every new attempt. No evidence supports the idea that the phrase far fiasco originated in Venice. Unlike sports and art, glass blowing is a field whose professional secrets mainly interests only those involved, and a technical phrase known to insiders would be unlikely to travel far and wide. Nor has it been documented that workers ever turned spoiled objects into primitive bottles or destroyed them.
Another line of inquiry emphasizes the fact that the verb far does not have to mean “do, make”: it can be a substitute for some more concrete verb. This is true enough. To make one’s bed does not mean to produce it. To make head against something “resist an obstacle successfully” does not involve the manufacturing of a head. Make can even be a kind of link verb (for example, I made bold to mention this fact). The phrase appiccare un fiasco “to hang a bottle round someone’s neck” (appiccare “attach, fasten”) was a legal formula, and a substantial body of material has been produced to show that in the Middle Ages and later various objects—including bottles—were hung around miscreants’ necks. However, “to inflict a penalty” and “impose a punishment” are hardly synonyms for “fail as the result of a mistake.” At first sight, more promising seems to be the consideration that the names of hollow objects are often used as metaphors for “an empty head” and “fool.” Both German Flasche and French bouteille can mean “dummy,” but Italian fiasco cannot, so that this path also leads nowhere.
As pointed out above, fiasco became known in Italy and other lands as slang current in theaters. It may have originated elsewhere, but the stage was the center from which it spread through the languages of Europe. An ingenious reconstruction refers to the period in the 18th century when Italian comedians performed in France and became bitter rivals of native actors. This approach purports to explain how the now obsolete French expression faire une bouteille “make a mistake” became far fiasco and why the Italian phrase appeared in France before the Italians began to use it. Even if this is how the events developed, the problem of the indefinite article remains unsolved. Although far un fiasco and far il fiasco have been recorded, they have never been the main variants of the idiom and look like later rationalizations of far fiasco. Bottle is a countable noun, and it remains a puzzle why, in translating faire une bouteille, une was left out. Similar cases, with articles missing after faire ~ make, exist, but they are not many. The French idiom faire face a, roughly synonymous with make head against, had some currency in English guise (make face to); for example, Washington Irving used it. Here neither language needs the indefinite article before face, which is typical: compare save face. One can understand how face acquired an abstract meaning or how the same process affected way (make way), sail (make sail = hoist sail), and penny (at one time, the phrases make penny of something or make a penny of something enjoyed some popularity). But bottle? To us fiasco is abstract (“failure; disaster),” but nothing can be more concrete than Italian fiasco “bottle.” And this circumstance brings me to a last (surely, not the last) hypothesis on the origin of this intractable word.
Perhaps fiasco is connected with bottles less directly than is usually believed. In southern French dialects, the phrase faire flist “to lose courage” occurs. Flist, flast, and so forth are sound imitative words, and the phrase in question means approximately “to go flop.” One can imagine that for fun actors reshaped some French word like flast into Italian fiasco. This hypothesis is not unknown, but etymologists, in the rare cases they touch on it, do so in passing and with great diffidence, for too many missing links invite caution. In the world of words, old age (and flask has been around “forever”) is no proof against an onomatopoeic origin; the opposite is true. Since Germanic f- goes back to earlier p-, the protoform of flask must have begun with plas- or plos-, a typical sound imitative complex: compare Engl. plash ~ splash-. Perhaps the type of bottle called “flask” got its name for the sound the liquid it contained went plas-plas or plos-plos. Bottle (originally a wine sack or a leather flask?) is a Romance word and may be related to Engl. body and other nouns denoting “swelling.” B-d and b-t words are also sound imitative. Latin ampulla “bottle” was frequently used to designate inflated and noisy objects. If flask arose as an onomatopoeic word in antiquity, it could cross the path of another onomatopoeia centuries later. All this is interesting but rather fruitless guesswork.
However slippery our ground may be, research has shed some light on the derivation of fiasco. Contrary to what popular books keep telling us, the word did not arise in the lingo of Venetian glassblowers. It probably owes nothing to the barbarous punishments of the Middle Ages and beyond. Despite the obvious Italian connection, it has French roots (not to be confused with a French root). Other than that, the bottle refuses to be cracked.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”