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Still in the Bottleneck, or, Chasing for the First Fiasco




By Anatoly Liberman

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_libermanAnatoly 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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Thanks. I don’t know the solution for “fiasco” but can say that it entered English before 1854. Examples:

    January 1823, The Harmonicon [London] p.82: “In the letters which he [Rossini] wrote to his mother at Bologna, he was accustomed to draw a smaller or larger figure of a flask, (_fiasco_) at the side of the account of any new opera he had brought out, to indicate the degree of failure which his work had met with. the reader should be apprised that _fare fiasco_ is the Italian cant phrase for a failure.”

    May 1827. The Oriental herald and colonial review v. XIII ed. by James Silk
    Buckingham p.229 [In Italy at a performance of a the opera Giovanna by Vaccaij]:
    “People began to mutter ‘pasticcio,’ a phrase by which they are wont to indicate music made up of odds and ends; and every thing seemed to portend a fiasco, (in musical phraseology, a failure.) A fine duet, however…turned the scale, and put the audience in good humour.”

    1841 Cecil: or, The adventures of a coxcomb. A novel. 2nd ed. v.2 p.11 By Mrs. Catherine Grace F. Gore. “I was fain to confess that, with all my tact and cleverness, my season had been
    a failure. I had achieved nothing. My advantages had been great, the result–fiasco!”

    1841 April The Foreign Quarterly Review p. 118
    “… the prying public recognize in a new manoeuvre, anything that has been used
    before, they hiss it; the ballet is damned, and in this fiasco all the splendid costumes [etc.]…condemned to vanish….”

    The Era (London, England), July 25, 1841; Issue 148. Music and the Drama. “When transplanted to Turin a decided _fiasco_ followed, though the principal_artistes_ were the same.” [Oberto by Verdi creates a _furore_ in one city and
    meets with a _fiasco_ in another]

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Here’s a suggestion on the origin of the word “poontang” and a question about it. OED doesn’t know the origin and is ambivalent whether it had an African-American origin. I suggest that Spencer Williams (an African-American) might have made up the word, or at least the vulgar sense of it, in his novelty song “Oh! Mister Mitchell.” John O’Hara (who used it in a 1927 letter and Thomas Wolfe (who used it in _O, Lost_) maybe heard the song in NYC and learned the new word. “Mister Mitchell,” I think, turns out to be an odd reference to General William Mitchell, Billy Mitchell, the vigorous proponent of developing US air power and a harsh critic of the military and the government; he was court-marshaled, then resigned, in 1926. The Feb 10 1926 LA Times headline referred to him as “Mister Mitchell.” Feb 2 1926 LA Times headline: “Mitchell in Swan Song: Air Critic Now Plain “Mister.'” One usually abbreviates Mr. but not in these
    reports, nor in the song. The other character in the song: Lindy Lou. A reference to Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis? Clara Smith recorded the song in NYC in 1929. But was it written in 1926 or 1927? Anyone know when?

  3. Stephen Goranson

    For what it’s worth, based in part on reading many pre-1854 English uses of “fiasco”–e.g., The Harmonicon, A Journal of Music [London] uses it numerous times from 1823 to 1833–I now doubt that the word came into English via French. It appears to have come directly from Italian, though I haven’t read all the bibliography you’ve gathered, so perhaps you have evidence beyond what’s in the blog.

    To turn to what may be another dead end: there was a writer of “indecent” plays, Cornelio Fiasco, mentioned in Wraxall, Nathaniel William, Sir. The history of France, from the accession of Henry the third, to the death of Louis the fourteenth. Preceded by a view of the civil, military, … London, 1795, vol. 2, p. 374.

  4. Wander Frota

    An otherwise reliable source in Brazilian Portuguese (A. Houaiss, 2001) writes that the phrase “far fiasco” is attributed to the Bolognian harlequin D. Biancolelli, who, before 1681, having had a fiasco during his presentation, had one day brought a flask with him onto the stage, thus later blaming the flask for his ill success. Would this be of any help whatsoever?

  5. Stephen Goranson

    FWIW, a report of the story claiming the origin of “fiasco.”

    Illustrated London News Sept 22, 1883, p. 275, Echoes of the Week by G. A. S.
    [George Augustus Sala]:
    But, touching “fiasco,” D. J. obligingly tells me that there was once at Florence a celebrated harlequin by the name of [Giuseppe-Domenico?] Biancolelli [1640-1688?], whose forte was the improvisation of comic harangues on any object which he might chance to hold in his hand. One evening he appeared on the stage with a flask (“fiasco”) in his hand. but, as ill-luck would have it, he failed in extracting any “funniments” out of the bottle. At last, exasperated, he thus apostrophised the flask: “It is thy fault that I am so stupid to-night. _Fuori_! Get out of this!” So saying, he threw the flask behind him, and shattered it into atoms. Since then, whenever an actor or singer failed to please an audience, they used to say that it was like Biancolelli’s “fiasco.” The explanation is certainly an ingenious one; and possibly some Italian correspondent will favour me with an entirely different version of the origin of the saying.

  6. […] substances look rather similar. Hence the allusion to “brains between legs.” As regards Italian fiasco, I am sure that, contrary to a guess of our correspondent, far’ fico and far’ fiasco are […]

  7. Stephen Goranson

    Another early English use:
    London Magazine and Review, 2 (1825:June) p.206
    Maestro Soliva is the _only_ student belonging to it [the Conservatory of Milan]
    that has come before the public. his first opera…was thought to indicate
    talent, and gave hopes of improvement, but his second and third operas
    _facevano fiasco_, so that out of Lombardy he still remains unknown.

  8. […] century Italian slang. Two good discussions of the subject are this entry on World Wide Words and Still in the Bottleneck, or, Chasing for the First Fiasco on the Oxford University […]

  9. Jim Fiasco

    Thank you very much. I am very interested in any information that may be forthcoming. Jim “Fiasco”.

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