Into the Wayback Machine, Sherman!
Dear Word Detective: I happened to come across a discussion of the word “fracas” in today’s newspaper, where they say it’s derived from the Italian word “fracasso” meaning “to smash.” However, my generally trusty Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells me that the word comes from French (without going into greater detail). So who’s correct here? This sort of set me wondering: Are there any words — mainstream words I mean, and of not too recent vintage — where provenance is not conclusively established at all? Might “fracas” be one such? — Partha Sen Sharma.
There are tons of them; just browsing through any good dictionary at random will produce many words we use every day whose etymology is noted as “origin unknown” or qualified by “perhaps.” Your use of the word “provenance” in this context, incidentally, is especially apt. From the Latin “provenire,” meaning “to appear, arise, originate,” the noun “provenance” at its most basic level means simply the origin of something. But it also means the verified history of a thing. For instance, the “provenance” of a painting by a famous artist, a documented record of the hands through which it has passed since its creation, is considered vital to authenticating and properly valuing the work. In the case of the etymology of a word, our only guide is the written record, a record that often grows more spotty the further back you trace the word. The good news is that such an investigation often illuminates the way a given word has evolved in form and meaning over the centuries. The bad news is that in many cases the details of its exact origin remain a bit fuzzy.
In the case of “fracas,” meaning “a noisy quarrel,” “a disturbance” or, more generally, “an uproar,” the newspaper and the OED are actually in agreement; the newspaper just skipped a step. English acquired our “fracas” by adopting the French word “fracas,” so it’s fair to say that it “came from French.” But the French word came from the Italian “fracasso,” a noun (not a verb) meaning “crash or uproar,” which came from the verb “fracassare,” meaning both “to smash” and “to create an uproar.” The Italian words go back to the Latin “quassare,” meaning “to shake” (also the root of our English “quash”).
“Fracas” is actually of relatively recent vintage, first appearing in print (as far as we know so far) in 1727, and its meaning has remained the same since its first use, which is a bit unusual. That may be due to its flexibility; a “fracas” may be anything from a social commotion (“He … occasions such fracas amongst the Ladys of Galantry that it passes [belief].” 1727) to an actual fistfight (A … violent fracas took place between the infantry-colonel and his lady.” Vanity Fair, Thackeray, 1848) to the sort of political ruckus that keeps the cable news channels in business (“IRS faces more heat from watchdog report amid Tea Party fracas.” recent Reuters headline).