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Word of the Week: Fiasco, a disaster of rather epic proportions – art and culture

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Fiasco is a delightfully unusual word, for all sorts of reasons. First of all, it is one of the shortest words in English to contain three vowels, all of which are separately pronounced. Second, it is a word that intensifies an existing meaning: a fiasco is not simply a disaster but a complete failure on someone’s part that compounds a disaster: “After the fiasco of her first book on how to write a bestseller, which sold just thirteen copies, few publishers were willing to take a chance on publishing her advice again.”

Fiasco is also unusual in emerging from the world of the theatre, and that too from foreign sources. When the term “fiasco” entered English in the mid-1800s, it meant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a failure or break-down in a dramatic or musical performance”. It was derived from the French phrase faire fiasco, “to make a failure”, in turn coming from the Italian far fiasco, meaning “suffer a complete breakdown in performance.”

fiasco (n.), a complete, unmitigated, and disastrous failureUsage: He confidently announced that he expected to win the election, but when he came in last, losing his deposit, his campaign proved to be a total fiasco.

But what was the connection between fiasco and failure in the first place? The word descended from the Late Latin flasco or “bottle” (the same root that gives us our modern flask!): in the theatre, an actor was said to “bottle” his performance when he forgot his lines or his cues or stumbled badly on the stage (“bottle” here serving as an oblique reference to drunkenness). One Italian dictionary suggests that this meaning, in turn, came from fare il fiasco, meaning “to play a game so that the one that loses will pay the fiasco,” in other words, he will buy the next bottle of wine. Fiasco thus emerged in the mid-19th century as theatrical slang for “a failure in performance” and by extension acquired the general sense of “any ignominious failure or dismal flop,” on or off the stage.

Fiasco is commonly described as a word of obscure antecedents, which is what makes it all the more interesting to explore. The rather conventional explanation is the one that one comes across in the Chambers etymological dictionary, which says “fiasco” emerges from “the alleged practice of Venetian glassmakers setting aside imperfect glass to make a common bottle or flask.” Even that theory has been embellished by a better version of the word’s origin, in the 1874 book Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature, by Charles Bombaugh, that is worth sharing:

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.

Yet another version comes from Italian theatre, at least according to an 1883 issue of the Illustrated London News:

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”.

But to return to the stage, as I briefly did last year: When I agreed to appear in a stand-up comedy act for Amazon Prime, I was terrified that I was taking a huge risk: what if my first attempt at stand-up was a fiasco? If I had “bottled” my live performance at a comedy club, it would have not just have embarrassed me but could have wrecked my credibility in national politics. Fiasco, after all, is a much stronger word than failure: “The unsuccessful businessman’s first venture ended in a fiasco when he parked his ice-cream van in the sun for three hours while taking a nap and found his investment had literally melted away.”

Politics provides many examples of the use of the word “fiasco”. President John F. Kennedy ruefully noted after the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, when he authorised an invasion of that country by a force of irregulars who were notoriously too few to win and too many to hide — “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” (Of course, American hagiographers are experts at turning a fiasco into a noble lesson about fortitude and stoicism.) In Indian politics, the Opposition is routinely berated by the media for failing to make a national issue of the government’s policy fiascos. “The public is entitled to demand and receive a full and open explanation of the reasons for this financial fiasco,” as one editorialist thundered.

It often strikes foreign observers as remarkable how, in our country, none of our political masters ever seem to feel the need to offer to resign in acknowledging their responsibility for their party’s undergoing an electoral fiasco. But they are wise – what if their resignation is enthusiastically accepted? That would be, for them, the real fiasco!

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Written by sortiwa

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