Mazel Tov, Molotov, whatever

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Jessie Opoien, "The political pitfalls of cultural crossover: Scott Walker edition", The Capitol Times 12/10/2014:

In an undated letter unearthed by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now during the August release of documents from the first of two John Doe investigations related to the governor, Walker responded to a letter from Milwaukee attorney and chairman of the Wisconsin Center District Franklyn Gimbel.  

Walker told Gimbel his office would be happy to display a menorah celebrating "The Eight Days of Chanukah" at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, and asked Gimbel to have a representative from Lubavitch of Wisconsin contact Walker's secretary, Dorothy Moore, to set it up.  

The letter is signed, "Thank you again and Molotov."

It's not clear whether this was a human malapropism or a cupertino.

In any event, the report gave me an opportunity to learn the true origins of "Molotov cocktail", which I had vaguely associated with the 1956 Hungarian uprising. According to Wikipedia,

Improvised incendiary devices were used for the first time in the Spanish Civil War between July 1936 and April 1939, before they became known as "Molotov cocktails". […]

On 30 November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, starting what came to be known as the Winter War. The Finnish Army faced large numbers of Red Army tanks. Being short on anti-tank guns, they improvised incendiary devices to use against them.  

During the Winter War, the Soviet air force made extensive use of incendiaries and cluster bombs against Finnish troops and fortifications. When Soviet People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov claimed in domestic propaganda broadcasts that the USSR was not bombing Finland, but merely delivering food to the starving citizens, the Finns, who were not starving, started sarcastically to call the air bombs Molotov bread baskets. Soon the Finns responded by attacking advancing tanks with "Molotov cocktails", which were "a drink to go with the food". This Finnish use of the hand- or sling-thrown explosive against Soviet tanks was repeated in the subsequent Continuation War between the two countries.


  1. GeorgeW said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 5:51 am


    (True sentiment, but posted to subscribe to the thread. Is there anyway to get email notices of comments without making a comment?)

  2. John F said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 6:37 am

    Can I get a Mazel Tov cocktail?

    [(myl) Any time you're in Philadelphia.]

  3. David L. Gold said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 7:53 am

    @ Mark Liberman. I am sorry to have to tell you that the passage quoted from Wikipedia contains mistakes and makes unverified assumptions.

    The first and still only serious study of the origin of terms literally meaning 'Molotov cocktail' is:

    "Etymology and Etiology in the Study of Eponymous Lexemes: The Case of English Molotov cocktail and Finnish Molotovin koktaili,"

    on pages 193-235 of

    David L. Gold's Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages). Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante. 2009.

    The 43-page treatment is not exhaustive and may contain mistakes, but it is now the necessary point of departure for any serious discussion of those terms.

    [(myl) So what is the true story, in a nutshell? Perhaps you should fix the Wikipedia entry…]

  4. Mateo said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 10:02 am

    Nothing to see here. Everyone knows Hanukkah isn’t a High Explosive Holiday.

  5. KS said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 10:20 am

    My favorite part of this is that "Mazel Tov" isn't even the right thing to say! (lit. "Good Luck", but usually used for "Congratulations")
    I suspect he probably meant "Happy Holidays", which would be "Chag Sameach".

  6. chips mackinolty said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    Mistaking Mazel Tov for Molotov is one thing.

    Just don't ask–ever–for preservativo on your toast.

    Talk about false friends!

  7. Robert Coren said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    I suspect it's a cupertino. Still, you'd think people would actually read these things before hitting "send".

    (Well, I used to think that, but the evidence that they don't keeps piling up.)

  8. KeithB said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    Interestingly enough, in "Battle of the Tanks" about the huge tank battles on the Eastern Front, the Russians made and used molotov cocktails to use against the German tanks. And they called them that, so this seems to be a term, like "Christian" that was originally intended as an insult, but turned into the proper term.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 11:03 am

    @David L. Gold

    Would you please tell us a few key points (even one) where you disagree with the Wikipedia article?

  10. mollymooly said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 11:34 am

    I skimmed [the visible pages of] Gold's article on Google Books, from which I infer that Wikipedia is mistaken about the Spanish Civil War being the first use of the object (NYC 14 July 1863, says Gold) and that the "drink to go with the food" quip is unverified (though "Molotov bread baskets" and other ironic eponyms are well-attested). And it's possible that the specific term "Molotov cocktail" was coined in English by a foreign correspondent in Finland before it was adopted by the Finns (though the reverse borrowing is more likely).

  11. David L. Gold said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    @ Victor Mair. Gladly.

    1. "Improvised incendiary devices were used for the first time […] between […] 1936 and […] 1939."

    Section 6 of the chapter in Studies in Etymology and Etiology is entitled "So far as we know, the first Molotov cocktail was made in New York City on 14 July 1863."

    There, mention is made of the "bottles of vitriol" used during the Draft Riots of 13-15 July 1863. The words "bottles of vitriol" are taken from accounts of that time.

    2. The article entitled "Molotov cocktail" in Wikipedia says "The name 'Molotov cocktail' was coined by the Finns during the Winter War. "

    The Winter War began on 30 November 1939 and ended on 13 March 1940.

    So far as is known, the Finns first used Molotov cocktails during the Battle of Kollaa (7 December 1939) but it is not known whether they had a specific name for them at that time and, if they did, what it was.

    The earliest evidence uncovered so far for the English term Molotov cocktail (however spelled) is dated 26 January 1940.

    The Continuation War began on 26 June 1941 and ended on 5 September 1944.

    The earliest evidence uncovered so far for the Finnish term Molotovin koktaili (however spelled) is dated 4 August 1941.

    You will have noticed the contrast between Wikipedia's ipse dixits ("were used for the first time" in the first quotation and "was coined by the Finns" in the second one, neither of them corroborated by evidence), and the cautious wordings required when the evidence may have gaps ("so far as is known," "the earliest evidence uncovered so far").

    The best student of older Finnish military terminology, (the chapter in Studies […] gives a full bibliographical reference) was of the opinion that the first language to have a term literally translating as 'Molotov cocktail' may have been English and that the Finnish term Molotovin koktaili may be a translation thereof.

    The least one may say with certainty is that his opinion is consistent with the dates 26 January 1940 and 5 August 1941.

    For reasons adduced in the chapter, I tend to think that the Finnish term may be the earliest one, but in the absence of prima-facie evidence, no firm statements are possible.

    I see now that my earlier post should have read "the article on Molotov cocktails in Wikipedia" instead of "the passage quoted from Wikipedia." I apologize for the poor choice of words.

    A good part of the chapter on names for the Molotov cocktail may be seen free of charge on the Internet (

  12. David L. Gold said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

    @Keith B. Could you please corroborate your statement "in 'Battle of the Tanks' about the huge tank battles on the Eastern Front, the Russians made and used molotov cocktails to use against the German tanks"?

  13. Jamie said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    @David L. Gold

    I would not describe a "bottle of vitriol" as an incendiary device. *Concentrated* sulphuric acid can act as an oxidising agent and cause fires but it isn't clear from the brief excerpt you quote that that was used or if fire was the result. Concentrated sulphuric acid would have been hard to obtain and dangerous to those preparing these devices.

  14. David L. Gold said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

    @ Jamie. With respect to precisely what happened with the bottles of vitriol in July 1863, when writing the chapter, I had access only to a reliable secondary source of 1999 (Burrows and Wallace's Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898), which refers to a primary document from the time of the riots as the source of the authors' information.

    I have not been able to see that document, but this much is clear: since by the 1990s "vitriol" was an obsolete name for sulfuric acid, Burrows and Wallace must have taken the word from a source contemporary with the riots.

    Here are their words: "At the Sub-Treasury Building on the corner of Nassau Street, guns and bottles of vitriol were passed out to employees stationed at windows […]."

    Maybe that will give you an idea of how the bottles were used.

    Since the Finns used various substances to make Molotov cocktails (as may be expected from the fact that in the heat of war they had to improvise with whatever they found; for example, a mixture of alcohol, petroleum oil, gasoline, and tar is also reported, besides pure gasoline), the definition should not be limited to bottles containing just gasoline (presumably you will agree with proposal hat, but not to a definition so broad that it includes sulfuric acid).

    Here's something that readers of Chinese may want to look into: according to one of the secondary sources I quote, "In 1937, Chinese troops threw beer bottles filled with gasoline at Japanese tanks during fighting around Shanghai, and in 1938, they were used in that proving ground for many World War II weapons, the Spanish Civil War."

    A colleague of mine was able to interview a retired Spanish lieutenant general who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. He confirmed that bottles of gasoline were used in that conflict.

    It therefore seems that at least the Spanish preceded the Finns in the use of Molotov cocktails.

  15. Chris Waigl said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

    My guess at the most likely misspelling was "Mozeltov" … and indeed, my copy of MS Word has one suggestion for correction: "Molotov". (Google Chrome underlines the misspelled word but doesn't suggest anything.)

  16. Bill Benzon said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

    These days one could call it an Enhanced Libation Technique.

  17. maidhc said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

    The film "Michael Collins" shows Molotov cocktails being used in the Irish War of Independence. I'm not sure how accurate this is, but the film seems otherwise fairly well researched.

  18. Ray Girvan said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

    On the subject of incendiary throwing, I'm absolutely sure many more earlier examples would be forthcoming: for instance, 19th century anarchists and Fenians, etc. Here's one straight away: an account in the snappily titled 1868 Report Presented to the Trades Unions Commissions by the Examiners Appointed to Inquire Into Acts of Intimidation, Outrage, Or Wrong Alleged to Have Been Promoted, Encouraged, Or Connived at by Trades Unions in Manchester and Its Neighbourhoodpage 94 concerns a bottle of naptha thrown through a window.

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    Sorry: naptha-> naphtha

  20. Jason said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

    @David L. Gold

    "Section 6 of the chapter in Studies in Etymology and Etiology is entitled "So far as we know, the first Molotov cocktail was made in New York City on 14 July 1863."

    Well, if we want to be generous this way, the molotov cocktail dates back to 672 and the development of Greek fire by the Byzantines, which was delivered either by hose or in clay pots.

  21. samklai said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 1:45 am

    There's a paper by David Landau, "The source of the term Molotov Cocktail", available here. Looks like "Molotov" was a productive adjective in Finnish WWII soldiers' slang, e.g. Molotov crows for Russian airplanes. No antedating of the term but much more of the context. Landau concludes the phrase probably originated in English, but suggests that instances of Molotov's cocktail in English texts are probably translations, since Finnish (and Swedish) would use the genitive, Molotovin koktaili.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    I am interested by Mr. Gold's expression, "The least one may say with certainty…". Clearly this means anything only with an alteration. Equally clearly, the correct alteration would probably be to substitute "most" for "least". It seems likely that the writer was thinking "at least", but groped for a more dignified preamble, and then misadapted it.

    The mistake would not be entirely unlike groping for mazel tov and ending up with Molotov, but it was probably not abetted by MSWord.

  23. KeithB said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    It is pretty self explanatory. For the Battle of Kursk, the Russians had a long time to prepare defenses, including lots of trenches. During the battle, the German tanks were way ahead of their infantry, so the Russians would hide in the trenches, let the tanks pass over, pop up behind and throw the molotov cocktails onto the engine compartment of the tank to either catch it on fire or melt the radiator.

    To counteract this the Germans even had to fire their light machine guns down the barrel of one of the tanks that had no machine gun on the turret.

  24. KeithB said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    I don't know ho I can corroborate it – I don't have the book handy – but it is an excellent book by Lloyd Clark. He even includes interviews from the Russian soldiers. Of course, in light of this discussion, I don't know whether "molotov cocktail" was actually used in the original Russian, or translated that way by the author.

  25. Belial Issimo said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    Bottle of vitriol
    Molotov cocktail
    Throw it at someone and
    watch it go Boom!

    Came from the Winter War
    (Or from the Civil War)
    Leading to doom.

  26. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    "You will have noticed the contrast between Wikipedia's ipse dixits…"

    The two assertions you quote have accompanying citations. Whether those sources are reliable or not is different matter.

    It would be questionable for you to update the Wikipedia citing yourself; but surely you could update the article citing the sources you used for your book. And then other editors will scrutinize your edits and sources, and so on and so forth. It's how it works.

    Or you could just kvetch.

  27. Bob Edgar said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 3:43 am

    With respect to bottles of vitriol I wonder why we don't simply take them literally. It seems it was a thing (at least in London) around the time.

    Bottles of acid wouldn't be be burning in the classical sense but…

  28. RobertL said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 4:46 am

    I don't know about the origins of the term Molotov cocktail but I have seen old British movies with 1950's and 60's gangsters using the term Vitriol for sulphuric acid.

  29. KevinM said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

    @Robert L:
    Brighton Rock.

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