The Grammarphobia Blog

Was ist das?

Q: I’ve studied German, English, French, and Latin, which may explain my fascination with how languages influence one another. For example, the French word for a transom, vasistas, comes from the German phrase was ist das?  I’ve read that French soldiers picked up the usage during World War I or II. True or false?

A: We don’t usually comment on French or German expressions unless we’re discussing their influence on English usages, but curiosity got the better of us this time.

The French noun vasistas is generally believed to be derived from the German expression was ist das? However, the French usage didn’t originate during either of the two world wars.

And some scholars have questioned the influence of was ist das? (what is that?) on vasistas (a transom, a narrow opening in a door or window, or simply a movable window pane).

In the 19th century, for example, the French lexicographers Auguste Brachet and Émile Littré disagreed about the origin of the French term.

In his Dictionnaire Étymologique de la Langue Française (1868), Brachet, who was an etymologist and a historical grammarian of French as well as a lexicographer, says in the entry for vasistas: “origine inconnue” (origin unknown).

But Littré, in his Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, parts of which began appearing in 1863, says the word comes from the German question was ist das?

And Littré, who helped edit a later edition of Brachet’s etymological dictionary, revised the vasistas entry to read: “Origin uncertain. Littré accepts the Germ. was ist das? (We’re quoting here from an English edition.)

Today, though, French language authorities generally accept the German origin of vasistas.

The online Larousse Dictionnaires de Français, for instance, defines vasistas as an “alteration de l’allemand was ist das?, qu’est-ce que c’est?”

And Le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, an updated online version of Littré’s dictionary, describes vasistas similarly: “Déformation de l’all. was ist das?, littéral. «qu’est-ce que c’est?»”

Some language books and websites say the usage originated during World War II, World War I, or even the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

The American language writer Eugene Ehrlich, for example, offers this explanation in Les Bons Mots: How to Amaze Tout Le Monde With Everyday French (1997):

“A term said to have originated in the nineteenth century, during the Franco-Prussian War, when Paris was occupied by German-speaking soldiers who had never before seen transoms, the windows over doors that afford ventilation without having to leave doors open.”

However, the usage preceded all those wars. It showed up in French in the mid-1700s, more than a century before the Franco-Prussian War.

The earliest example we’ve found of vasistas is from a 1760 entry in a diary of household expenses kept by the Duchesse de Mazarin, who was living at Versailles at the time.

In her household accounts, the Duchess recorded this entry under her expenses for  Nov. 14, 1760: “Plus pour deux vasistas, une pour ma chambre, e l’autre pour M. de Laporte.”  (“Also for two vasistas, one for my room and the other for M. de Laporte.”)

(Her household accounts for 1760-62 were published in Paris in 1892 by the Revue Respective.)

The earliest citation we’ve found linking vasistas and was ist das is in Mémoires sur la Nature, les Effets, Propriétés & Avantages du Feu de Charbon de Terre Apprêté (1770), a book by the French physician Jean François Clément Morand in support of coal-burning fireplaces.

In describing the smoke produced by a wood fire, he says this inconvenience “ne laisse dans certaines maisons d’autre alternative, ou que d’éteindre le feu & d’être alors saisi par le froid de l’appartement, ou, si l’on veut ne pas être fatigué de rougeurs, de maux d’yeux cuisans, de souffrir le vent d’une porte, d’une fenêtre, d’un Wass-ist-dass.”

Translation: “leaves in some abodes no alternative but to either put out the fire and then be suddenly cold, or if one does not want to suffer burning red eyes, to endure the wind from a door, window, Wass-ist-dass.”

In our searches, we’ve found the word vasistas in many French dictionaries, encyclopedias, and technical works of the late 18th to early 19th centuries and beyond.

The word appears in quite ordinary surroundings. We even found it—again printed in italics as if it were a foreign term—in a book on raising chickens.

In his book Ornithotrophie Artificièle (1780), the Abbé Copineau addresses the problem of how to ventilate a chicken coop:

“Tant que la saison le permétra, & même dans les beaux jours de l’hiver, on tiendra une partie des croissées du midi ouvertes; ne fût-ce qu’un simple careau de vitre, en manière de vasistas.” 

Translation: “As long as the season allows, & even on mild winter days, one will keep part of the south facing windows open, even if only a single glass pane, as if it were a vasistas.”

 In 1798, vasistas was officially recognized by the French Academy in the fifth edition of Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Françoise.

The dictionary defines it as a small part of a door or window that can be opened or closed at will. But the word’s derivation isn’t given.

So how did the German expression was ist das? come to mean a vasistas in French?

Le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé suggests that the usage originated as a “name given in jest to the opening through which you can talk to someone.”

We can imagine two possibilities here. Perhaps the usage evolved from French mockery of the German response to those little Gallic windows.

Or think of a Parisian answering a knock on the door by peeping through the opening and asking “Vasistas?”—in imitation German—instead of “Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Either of those explanations could be the answer. Or perhaps something entirely different. We won’t know for sure until we see a citation from the 18th century that explains exactly was das ist.

Note: We’re indebted to a French friend, Martine Copeland, for translating the 18th-century French in this post.

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