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A common surname and its surprising roots

Downton Abbey butler Carson - Credit: ITV

PETER TRUDGILL on how bottlers became butlers

There are about 45,000 people in Britain who bear the surname Butler. In comparison, there are a quarter of million Browns and half a million Smiths.

But 45,000 still seems to be rather a high number if we assume that all of our contemporary Butlers are descended from men who acquired that surname in the late Middle Ages because they worked as butlers.

We can believe that we today have 80,000-plus people called Cook and Cooke because there were large numbers of cooks at work in mediaeval England. But were there really so many Downton Abbey-style Carsons and Admirable Crichtons operating in mediaeval households across this island, so as to give rise to such a large number of contemporary Butlers?

Well, no, there weren’t, because that is not what butler originally meant. The word was borrowed into English from mediaeval Anglo-Norman bouteler, which would correspond to modern Parisian French bouteiller, from bouteille, ‘bottle’. A bouteler would have been a man who made and/or sold bottles, but also the man in charge of all the bottles in a large household. And it was this second usage which gives us our modern Carson-type meaning of butler: among other tasks, the butler was in charge of the wine-cellar in a household which was large and wealthy enough to have such an asset.

Like butler, the English word bottle originally came from French, and it is a relatively new arrival in our language. Its first appearance in written English dates to the late 1300s. Prior to that, the Old English word for ‘bottle’ had been flasce or flacse, which was related to the German word for ‘bottle’, Flasche, and Scandinavian flaske or flaska.

By the time we get to the Middle (Mediaeval) English period, Old English flasce had become flash. But then, intriguingly, the word disappeared, probably because it was replaced by the arrival of bottle. This happened to rather a lot of Old English words. French-origin uncle, for example, completely replaced Anglo-Saxon faedera, ‘father’s brother’ and eam, ‘mother’s brother’. And Old English firen was replaced by French-origin crime.

Interestingly, about 300 years later, flash was then restored to the language once again, but this time in the form of flask, through the re-borrowing into English of French flasque, and with a rather different meaning from that of ‘bottle’.

There is also another interesting modern bottle-related borrowing of a continental word into English. Since the mid-19th century, we have been using the Italian word fiasco to mean ‘disaster, total failure’. Italian fiasco, ‘bottle’, is related to French flasque (and so to English flask), in the same way that Italian fiamma is related to ‘flame’, piazza to placepianeta to planetpieno to French plein, ‘full’, chiara to clair, ‘clear’, and vino bianco to French vin blanc: the original Latin sounds have become in modern Italian.

In Italian, fiasco came to be used colloquially in the phrase far fiasco, ‘to do a bottle’, referring to a big theatrical flop or failure, and then later to any kind of embarrassing disaster; and we have borrowed fiasco from Italian to refer to any kind of ignominious failure.

Italian language scholars are not sure how exactly fare fiasco came to acquire this exact meaning, but the suspicion has to be that it was in reference to some specific disastrous theatrical event which has now been forgotten about involving a bottle, while the ‘disaster’ meaning of the word fiasco lives on.

Colloquially, bottle is also used metaphorically in the modern English of this country to mean ‘courage’, as in “to lose one’s bottle” or to “bottle out of” something. The origin of this lies in rhyming slang, where the phrase bottle and glass provided a rhyme for arse in the colloquial meaning of  ‘bravery’. Downton Abbey’s Carson himself did have plenty of that kind of bottle.


The word flop is simply a variant of flap. It was not used metaphorically to signify ‘failure’ until the very end of the 19th century. Prior to that, it was employed literally to refer to something swinging and swaying about heavily and loosely, or landing heavily – flapping, in other words.