The final entry in our series of extracts from the new HH book, The Accidental Dictionary, is the confusing story behind the original fiasco...
Imagine you’re at the theatre. The show gets off to an inauspicious start when the curtain fails to open properly, and then, as the first performer takes to the stage, he trips up. After stumbling through his opening speech, he’s joined by another actor who misses his cue. In the background, an extra knocks over a prop and it smashes onto the stage. And so the show goes on, disaster after disaster, until finally the curtain falls and the performers are exploded from the stage. In a word, it’s a total fiasco.
In its native Italian, a fiasco is literally a glass bottle—and in particular a bulb-shaped chianti bottle of the kind that is usually partly wrapped in a decorative, cushioning covering of straw. Sometime in the Middle Ages however, the word fell into use in Italian slang among the actors and performers of the time, who began referring to making a mistake on stage as far fiasco, or “to make a bottle”.
A fiasco ultimately became a theatrical calamity that somehow led to the performance coming to a premature end. These theatrical connotations were still in place when the word appeared in English for the first time, in a letter between two Victorian statesmen, Lord Lonsdale and John Wilson Croker, in 1855:
My dear Croker, [The Earl of] Derby has made what the theatrical people call a fiasco. He would not make a Ministry from his own friends or his own bat ... I am told that the House of Commons is becoming more unmanageable every session.
But how did a word for a chianti bottle ever come to mean a calamity in the first place? Admittedly, no one is entirely sure—but there is no shortage of theories.
One explanation claims that the term might have been inspired by some kind of infamous incident, just like that described above, in which some hapless actor or extra dropped a bottle on stage, ruining a performance. Another claims that it refers to actors drowning their sorrows after a badly received show (perhaps only for their drink to be spilled or smashed just when things seemingly can’t get any worse). But a more plausible theory is that the phrase might have started out among glassblowers, before finding its way onto the stage: perhaps if an error were made in the creation of some ornate piece of glassware, the blower might smash the mistake and reuse the glass to make a bog-standard wine bottle.
Whatever the connection may be, it was the hapless and luckless performers of Renaissance Italy who first attached connotations of failure to the word fiasco. From there, it was borrowed first into French and then into English nearly two centuries ago, before quickly becoming more generalized. As a result, ever since the late nineteenth century we have been able to describe any embarrassing disaster or debacle—either on stage or off—as a total and utter fiasco.