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Q From Neal Evenhuis: The word fiasco apparently comes from the Italian word “a wine glass” or “making a wine glass”. How and when did it take on the negative connotation of a complete breakdown or failure?

A Ah, a difficult one. Writings about the origins of fiasco are full of subtle conjecture, misunderstandings and downright ignorant assertions, but everyone who tackles the subject ends by saying sadly that the problem is insoluble. This includes me: be warned that I shall come to no very definite conclusion.

The basic facts are simple enough. Fiasco is one of the Italian words for a bottle (it’s related to English flask) and the idiom far fiasco, literally “make a bottle”, developed among Italian theatre and opera people in the eighteenth century to mean perpetrating a bad performance, from which it moved into English through reports of Italian productions:

But if we may believe the common town talk, it is impossible for a piece not to make a fiasco on St. Stephen’s Day.

The Harmonicon, July 1825. The 1825 annual volume of this London journal, and the volumes following, are so peppered with references to fiascos we must assume that either its critics were difficult to satisfy or the standard of Italian theatre was shockingly low. Early examples, like this one, all translated the Italian into English as make a fiasco.

The first known use of the term is in the same magazine a little earlier:

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.

The Harmonicon, May 1824.

This is one version of a common story about its origin:

A German, one day, seeing a glassblower at his occupation, thought nothing could be easier than glassblowing, and that he could soon learn to blow as well as the workman. He accordingly commenced operations by blowing vigorously, but could only produce a sort of pear-shaped balloon or little flask (fiasco). The second attempt had a similar result, and so on until fiasco after fiasco had been made. Hence arose the expression which we not unfrequently have occasion to use when describing the result of our private and public undertakings.

Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature, by Charles Bombaugh, 1874. Mr Bombaugh’s story falls to the ground because he thought a fiasco was a little bottle, rather than any bottle. Other versions link it particularly with Venetian glassblowers, who were alleged to set aside imperfect glass to make a common bottle or flask. To pre-empt questions, this is not the source of the idiom pear-shaped.

Italians are just as puzzled by the idiom as we are. Etymologists in that country have put forward various incidents in theatrical history to account for it, such as the dropping of a real bottle, vital to the plot, during a performance. This is the canonical story:

But, touching “fiasco,” D. J. obligingly tells me that there was once at Florence a celebrated harlequin by the name of Biancolelli, 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.”

Illustrated London News, 22 September 1883. I’m indebted to Stephen Goranson for finding this.

I’ve also found a tale that connects it with those Chianti bottles with rounded bottoms that must be encased in a wicker sheath because they won’t stand up by themselves, so perhaps implying something that has been poorly constructed or which, like trying to stand the bottle up, will surely fail. This story gains in ingenuity what it loses in credibility.

Others have connected it with the long-dead French idiom faire une bouteille, to make a mistake (literally, again, to make a bottle). It has been suggested that Italian actors picked it up from French ones in the eighteenth century and translated it into Italian. If so, this merely takes the problem from one language to another, but it’s hard to explain the loss of the article. Notably, the Italian expression moved back into French around 1822 (as faire fiasco), at roughly the same time as it was beginning to appear in English, so contradicting the standard theory that the expression got into English via French.

Don’t believe anybody who claims to have the complete answer; at least not without incontrovertible written historical evidence.

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