Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
The liquor flask is a common prop in Hollywood, appearing mysteriously from an inner pocket, a boot, or a garter and then, after a quick tipple, disappearing just as quickly. Sometimes it happens so quickly you don’t even know where it came from.
It’s poetic, then, that there is some mystery about where the word flask itself came from.
Late Latin had the word flasco “bottle.” But the Late Latin period begins around 300 years after the death of Julius Caesar, after Roman expansion had facilitated centuries of linguistic crossover between Latin and the other languages of Europe and Asia. So where did flasco come from?
One argument is that flasco was adopted into Latin from a Germanic language. That would account for the existence of, for example, flaska in Old High German and flasce in Middle Dutch, both of which mean “bottle.” Another argument, however, traces it back to the earlier Latin word vasculum, meaning “small vessel.”
Regardless of its origin, flasco found its way into Middle English as flask by the mid-1300s.
But that isn’t the only place flasco found a new home. In Italian, the word became fiasco, still with the meaning “bottle.” In Italian theater circles, the idiom far fiasco developed. Though the phrase literally means “make a bottle,” it referred to the complete breakdown of a theatrical performance — sets fall apart, a lead actor storms off in a huff, a disgruntled composer drops a chandelier on the audience, that sort of thing.
Like with flask, exactly where the idiom far fiasco came from is unclear, and there are numerous competing theories. One Italian dictionary, for example, notes that fare il fiasco once referred to playing a game to decide who bought the next round — that is, whoever lost would buy the next bottle, making it a costly failure. The idiom could also have arisen from any number of specific on-stage disasters precipitated by a misplaced or misused bottle. We may never know.
Not to be outdone in the theatrical disasters, the French adopted the idiom as faire fiasco in the early 19th century. The English learned the term from the French, and by the mid-1800s — after 500 years of flasks — fiasco had become theater slang for an abysmal performance, without any obvious reference to bottles at all.
Today, a few too many sips from a flask can lead to a fiasco on or off the stage.
Featured image: Just dance / Shutterstock
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