Fiasco: We Know Its Meaning, Not Its Origin

airborn bottles
Is it really so hard to figure this out?

The asked him to go, but he refused, so they forcibly removed him from his seat (bloodying his face in the process) and then dragged him out by his arms. No, I’m not talking about the guy who wouldn’t leave the bar at closing time or the protester occupying a senator’s office, I’m talking about a dude on a plane … a dude who paid for a seat on a plane.

You know what I’m talking about: United Airlines and the horrible way it treated one if its paying customers. As bad as air travel is, this episode was bizarre, shocking, and enraging all at once. If you’ve been paying attention to the fallout from this event (and I know you have because how could you not), you’ve undoubtedly encountered a tray table full of interesting words and phrases to describe the inept way United Airline’s responded to it. I certainly have, and my favorite is fiasco.

Going with the context clues here, you can probably guess that (per the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language) fiasco is defined as, “a complete failure; action that comes to a ridiculous end.”

I know, that “ridiculous end” part is superb. The definition offered by the (compact) Oxford English Dictionary is good too: “a failure or breakdown in a dramatic or musical performance. Also, in a general sense, an ignominious (i.e., shameful, disgraceful) failure.”

Don’t you just love it when dictionary definitions offer the perfect words for capturing the moment?

Okay, so that’s what fiasco means, but where does it come from?

The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins explains the origin of the word this way:

fiasco. Our word for “a total, foolish failure” derives from the Italian fiasco, “bottle,” but no one seems to know why. First recorded in England as a theatrical term in the late 19th century, the word may have something to do with a bottle breaking–either accidentally or as part of the plot–in some forgotten Italian play. Perhaps also a brand of wine in some bottles was flat or sour–a complete failure of fiasco–or imperfect bottles made by glassblowers we called fiascos. There is no proof for any theory.

As far as colorful word histories go, that’s a pretty good one, even if there isn’t any proof for it. Ah, but is there consensus? There’s only one way to find out.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says:

fiasco. This is an adoption of an Italian word meaning literally “bottle, flask.” In the phrase far fiasco, literally “make a bottle.” Figuratively, this means “fail inĀ  performance” but the reason for the figurative sense remains unexplained.

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees that word is Italian in origin and means, “bottle or flask,” but it then goes on to say:

Its figurative use apparently stems from the phrase far fiasco, literally, “make a bottle,” used traditionally in Italian theatrical slang for “suffer a complete breakdown in performance.” The usual range of fanciful theories has been advanced for the origin of the usage, but none is particularly convincing.

Maybe, but folks keep trying. Picking up where the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins left off, the Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories offers this:

Just what prompted the development of the sense of “failure” from “bottle” has remained obscure. One guess that has been put forward a number of times … is that when a Venetian glassblower discovered a flaw developing in a beautiful piece he was working on, he would turn it into an ordinary bottle to avoid having to destroy the object. The bottle would naturally represent a failure of his art to the glassblower. This theory (only one of several) remains without evidence to support it.

Okay, so that’s one guess. Here’s another, rather commonsense explanation from yours truly, and (if I do say so myself) it brings together the concepts of poor performance, failure, and bottles together quite nicely. Here goes …

It seems to me that members of an audience — especially members of an audience who’ve been drinking — would be apt to throw their empty bottles toward the stage during a play or concert when the thespians or musicians they paid to see gave a lousy performance. Chances are, it wouldn’t take long for “a negative audience reaction to a poor performance that involved the throwing of bottle-shaped projectiles” to become a “fiasco,” particularly if it happened in Italy.

But hey, if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the glassblower thing ….

Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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