The Grammarphobia Blog

An etymological fiasco

Q: I’ve often heard that “fiasco,” which means bottle in Italian, got its negative meaning because Italian glassblowers used to smash bottles that weren’t up to snuff. However, it strikes me that this explanation doesn’t make sense. Why would a glassblower cry out “bottle!” when he ruined one?

A: In Italian, a fiasco is literally a bottle, especially a flask encased in a straw basket, like a traditional Chianti bottle.

However, fiasco has a figurative meaning in Italian that’s the same as its usual meaning in English: an utter failure.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this “figurative use apparently stems from the phrase far fiasco, literally ‘make a bottle.’ ”

As Ayto explains, far fiasco has been “used traditionally in Italian theatrical slang for ‘suffer a complete breakdown in performance.’ ”

How did an Italian phrase meaning “make a bottle” come to mean “have a flop”?

“The usual range of fanciful theories has been advanced for the origin of the usage, but none is particularly convincing,” Ayto concludes.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology agrees with Ayto that the linguistic evolution of fiasco in Italian is unknown.

But Chambers goes on to mention one of the theories: “the alleged practice of Venetian glassmakers setting aside imperfect glass to make a common bottle or flask.”

The Italian word fiasco is derived from flasco, a medieval Latin term that’s the source of the English word “flask.”

Interestingly, English adopted the term “fiasco” from French, not Italian. The French faire fiasco (to fail) was adopted in turn from the Italian far fiasco.

When the term “fiasco” entered English in the mid-1800s, it meant “a failure or break-down in a dramatic or musical performance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from an 1855 letter from William Lowther, second Earl of Londsale, to the Irish statesman John Wilson Croker: “Derby has made what the theatrical people call a fiasco.”

Later, the term “fiasco” showed up in English in its bottle sense. The OED has only one citation for this sense, from the Nov. 12, 1887, issue of the literary journal Athenaeum: “A fiasco of good Chianti could be had for a paul.” (A “paul” is an Italian coin.)

However, several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World (4th ed.), still include the bottle sense among the definitions of “fiasco.”

Getting back to your question, the OED says that “Italian etymologists have proposed various guesses, and alleged incidents in Italian theatrical history” have been suggested,  to account for the evolution of fiasco.

However, the dictionary concludes—as do we—that the evolution of fiasco in Italian from flask to flop “is of obscure origin.”

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