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Q From Graham Shipley, Australia: A friend tells me that the word bistro has its origins from the Russians. He claims that when the Russians occupied Paris in the 1800s, whenever they visited a restaurant where the service was slow, they hammered their fists on the table and shouted bistro which apparently means ‘hurry up’ in Russian. I think he’s pulling my leg!

A It sounds wonderfully detailed and plausible, doesn’t it? That’s always a sign that somebody may be telling a story, since real-life etymology is frequently prosaic and inconclusive. A search online and in books on word histories will find tales like this retold in French, Russian and English — the most frequent one points to the Cossacks who occupied Paris in 1814 or 1815.

Your friend may not be pulling your leg, at least not knowingly. That’s because the origin has some academic respectability and is quoted as a possible origin — for example — in both Chambers Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English. And in Russian a word very like bistro does mean “rapidly”. The French word is a puzzle for native speakers, because they can’t account for the ending or where the root of the word comes from, and as a result it does look foreign.

But once you start to look at its history, the story becomes less probable, mainly because the word is first recorded in French (as bistro in 1884 and as bistrot in 1892) long after those supposedly rowdy rude Cossacks came to town. We wordhounds are used to terms that lurk in the lexicographical shadows for decades before they become popular, but the 70-year gap is just too much to be easily accepted.

As so often, the trouble is that there’s nothing obvious to put in its place and etymologists have had to cast around to find possible sources. One suggestion is bistouille or bistrouille, a colloquial term from northern France meaning a mixture of coffee and brandy, a cheap grade of brandy, or any drink of poor quality, possibly something that might be served in a bistro. Another guess is that it might be connected with bistraud, a word in the Poitou dialect whose meaning dictionaries and works on word history seem unable to decide on — some say that it means a minor servant, but others suggest it refers to a small household, and senses such as “young cowherd” or “little shepherd” are also given.

As so often, we have to suspect the popular notion, but can’t find anything definite to put in its place.

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Page created 11 Sep 2004