Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Wed Apr 23 12:36:05 UTC 2008

FWIW, a story claiming the origin of "fiasco."

Illustrated London News Sept 22, 1883, p. 275, Echoes of the Week by G. A. S.
[George Augustus Sala]:
 But, touching "fiasco," D. J. obligingly tells me that there was once at
Florence a celebrated harlequin by the name of [Giuseppe-Domenico?] Biancolelli
[1640-1688?], 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." The explanation is certainly an ingenious one; and
possibly some Italian correspondent will favour me with an entirely different
version of the origin of the saying.

"Fiasco" in this sense is known in English since at least January 1823, The
Harmonicon [London] p.82: "In the letters which he [Rossini] wrote to his
mother at Bologna, he was accustomed to draw a smaller or larger figure of a
flask, (_fiasco_) at the side of the account of any new opera he had brought
out, to indicate the degree of failure which his work had met with. the reader
should be apprised that _fare fiasco_ is the Italian cant phrase for a

I suppose it would need to be known in Italian much earlier to make the above
story plausible. How early is it known in Italian?

Stephen Goranson

PS. Nice find Matthew, on ghoti/fish. Is that database the Chadwyck one?

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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