Words. The bearers of meaning, the core of every natural language (although not from a scientific point of view – check out phonemes, morphemes and syllables). We hardly ever think about the words we use when we are speaking, texting or post something on the Internet. We take words for granted, as if their only meaning was the one we meant to convey when using them. As though they did not have a history. Today, while watching a documentary on Netflix (who does that?) I learned the history of the word bistro.
As far as my knowledge reached, I knew the Portuguese word “bistrô” and the English word “bistro” were both quite obvious borrowings from the French “bistro”, and all of them meant a small restaurant or bar, especially one in a French style. But as often as not, words have way more interesting pasts.
In 1812, Napoleon and his apparently unbeatable army invaded Russia. I will not go into all the very interesting historical events (you might well google it if you are not familiar with them), but it is enough to say that in that year the Napoleonic forces suffered their first big defeat and retreated after nearly succumbing to the fierce Russian winter. These facts alone could already count as extraordinary and amazing, but that was not the end. During the following two years, the Russian Army chased the French back into France and marched into Paris, for Napoleon’s utter humiliation.
The Tsar’s forces stationed in the French capital for a couple of months, which certainly led to quite a clash of cultures and countless situations of language contact. It is said that Russian soldiers would often come into the local shops and restaurants and demand to be served right away. In Russian, the word for “quickly” is “быстро” (pronounced more or less like “biss-tre”). It seems to have taken no time till smart shop owners associated the Russian word with the kind of service they sought to provide. And this is how the “French” word bistro was born.
This is only a highly possible, if not likely, account of where the word came from. There are a few other theories, as there does not seem to be any scientific research to have focused on tracking down the term. We should also bear in mind that, as interesting as that story may seem, it is still not the whole thing again. The very Russian word “быстро” certainly has its own history as well. How far into the dark past of words are you willing venture? Do not forget to stop by a bistro before and get yourself a coffee and big, yummy croissant!
See you all next time.
P.S. For those interested in the documentary I mentioned, look for “Empire of the Tsars”.