By Anatoly Liberman
There is no way one can stop folk etymologies from spreading. Whatever dictionaries may say, people will repeat anecdotes like the one current about the origin of posh, for example (supposedly, an acronym: port out, starboard home). Nonsense is quick-paced, whereas true knowledge stays at home Cinderella-like and no good fairy comes to the rescue. Although I have nothing new to say about bistro, another rebuttal of a popular version may be of some use. But first some table talk.
I have heard a story that is a little too good to be true, but its witty message outweighs its questionable veracity. When the great physiologist Ivan Pavlov, so the story goes, received an honorary degree from Cambridge, he had a speech written for him in English, a language he did not know. After he delivered it, someone from the audience approached him and said: “I have read that Russian is related to English, but I did not realize they were so close.” As a matter of fact, English (a Germanic language with a strong infusion of French and Latin words) and Russian (a Slavic language that absorbed numerous words from its eastern neighbors) are not too close, and in oral communication a heavy Russian accent makes English nearly unintelligible. The number of common Russian words in English is negligible (for how often does one mention samovar, pogrom, or the short-lived sputnik and perestroika?), and those that have broken through tend to appear in garbled form. One such borrowing is babushka “a woman’s headscarf,” usually stressed on the second (instead of the first) syllable. Piroshki ~ pirozhki “small meat pies” is also stressed on the second syllable (instead of the last; audio-Webster recommends final stress but to no avail), and the often-heard names (Borodin, the composer; Gorbachev, and others) are invariably mispronounced in the media). I do not know who taught the West the Russian toast na zdorov’e. Perhaps it existed in the past, but today it is a formula used in response to “Thank you!” at table (the hostess answers: “Na zdorov’e,” that is, “You are welcome”). The toast should be (Za) Vashe zdorov’e “(To) your health!” Time and again have I been told that the word bistro came to French with the Russian Cossacks after the defeat of Napoleon. The thirsty customers, who were not allowed to consume alcoholic beverages, allegedly rushed the owners of small drinking establishments shouting: “Bystro, bystro!” (“Quick, Quick!”). The French heard it so often that they began to call small cheap cafés bistro. The date of the episode and the exact identification of the invaders change from version to version, but the core of the anecdote is stable.
The implausibility of this etymology should have become obvious even to non-specialists long ago. First, perhaps the uniformed Russians, while in Paris, really suffered from the effects of the dry law, but why did the story single out the Cossacks? At that time, most soldiers in the Russian army were serfs. Second, any sensible person staying in a foreign country tries to learn a few phrases needed for the most elementary communication and refrains from giving a waiter orders he won’t understand. Third, an offensive command used by the soldiers of an occupying army hardly has a chance of becoming popular. Who in Paris would have adopted a meaningless Russian word for the designation of a local café? Hated foreigners are mocked, not imitated. Finally, if the command “be quick!” had been pronounced surreptitiously, the thirsty “Cossacks” would have whispered rather than shouted it, for fear of being overheard by an officer.
The other arguments against this folk etymology are of a more special nature. The Russian for quick, quick! is not bystro, bystro (stress on the first syllable) but at best the comparative degree of this adverb “bystrei, bystrei!” (stress on ei). The French may perhaps have identified the “mixed” (central) Russian vowel transliterated as y with their front i, but stress, as noted, falls on the first syllable of bystro, and its unstressed o resembles a in Engl. tuna. Consequently, the result would have been something like bistra. In French printed sources, the word bistro surfaced only in 1789, too late for the Cossack theory, whereas in Russia the Western legend of the origin of bistro is unknown, and those who are conversant with French life (even if only from literature) never associate bistro with bystro.
The allure of folk etymology is irresistible: it explains the origin of words in a way anyone can understand: no exposure to linguistics, with its pedantic insistence on sound correspondents and semantic verisimilitude, is required. Paste shines like diamonds and costs almost nothing, but its price is commensurate with its value. The real story behind French bistro remains unknown. French words whose beginning sounds like bistro are rather many: bistouille “a mixture of cheap wine and alcohol” (was this swill served in the first bistros?), bistre “a brown pigment made from the mixture of wood soot and water” (the color of the walls in the earliest bistros?), bistraud (an Anjou or Poitou dialectal word for a boy guarding herds; from “a little shepherd” to “a wine merchant’s aide,” apparently, a recorded sense, and “a place where wine is served”?), and bistingo “a bad cabaret” or bistringue “cabaret.” None of these putative etymons inspires confidence. Bistro seems to have emerged from the depths of street slang (like Engl. slum, for example), and, as often in such cases, the word’s origin is lost. I would add only one comment to what has been said above. Most, if not all, correct etymologies are simple and, while looking at them, one has the feeling that yes, the truth has indeed been found. Devious ways (from dirty walls to the name of a filthy place, from “a wine merchant’s helper” to “saloon,” and so forth) need not be avoided, for incredible semantic bridges have been discovered, but it is better to choose straighter paths. In defiance of the meaning of Russian bystro, French bistro is slow to reveal its (cheap? dirty?) secret.
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 email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”