French 'vasistas', and other phrases-became-names etymologies

< Previous | Next >


Split from here.
(It may sound ridiculous that etymology could be a "joke" but there are a very few attested cases, like French [fr]vasistas[/fren] which, allegedly, evolved from a German asking French people what a specific kind of window is called, with pointing at it, saying "Was ist das?", and the French thought he was telling them that the thing's called "vasistas". Here the same could have happened, somehow. :D)
By the way, there is quite the same word in Russian: васисдас (vasisdas) - a viewing window (according to Vasmer).
However I'm far not sure (sorry for off-top) that the origin of this word is like that - sounds a bit more literaly to look credible. I also see here a joke but quite another one, more clear from the Russian use of this word. Those knowing Russian may check here: and besides, in Pushkin's Eugine Onegin (1 - XXXV)
...И хлебник, немец аккуратный,
В бумажном колпаке, не раз
Уж отворял свой васисдас

From these examples we can see that vasistas is not a veiwing window like Vasmer thought, but a window from which salesmen used to sell their goods or tickets or anything like that. I don't know about France, but in Russia it was caused by the special law limiting the possibility to use ground floors as shops, however anyone could easily sell anything right from the window of his apartment at the ground store.
Exactly such windows were called in Russian vasistas. The point of joke is that the most part of the salesmen in Petersburg of the XIX century were Germans, and was ist das in that case meant "what's the matter, what do you want" - response to the buyer knocking at the window. Important thing - a salesman had to keep the window closed (otherwise it would be a shop) and open it each time to sell, say, a loaf (as in Pushkin's poem).
Or maybe the French vasistas was overgrasped like that...
Last edited by a moderator:
  • Maroseika

    In addition to vasistas I encountered in Nabokov's comentary to Eugene Onegin another example: haberdasher < habt ihr dass (fancies seller).


    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Please note, this "etymology" of "vasistas" is an anecdote which linguists like to tell; it seems likely that it is true but I cannot give any proof.

    Here's a link to a discussion about vasistas - in German and French.

    ""Offiziell" (?) gibt es sowohl die Version, dass es deutsche Soldaten nach Frankreich brachten, als auch dass es französische Soldaten aus Deutschland mit nach Frankreich brachten."

    That is, two options: either German soldiers in France were responsible for coining this word, or French soldiers in Germany.
    Both explanations of course on the basis that German "Was ist das?" became French "vasistas", but here also several possibilities remain; there's a French explanation on the same site saying:

    "Alors que les troupes napoléoniennes se trouvaient en Allemagne, les habitants inquients ouvraient une petite fenêtre à leur passage et demandaient: "Was ist das?" L'expression est restée et se prononce à la francaise, sans pause entre les trois syllables. "

    Also it is mentioned that the term probably could have risen in bilingual Alsace-Lorraine/Elsass-Lothringen.

    Whatever the origin was, it is indeed likely to assume that "Was ist das?" is the correct etymology (and not a folk-etymology).
    < Previous | Next >