Q&A: Origin of ‘molotov cocktail’

Where does Molotov cocktail come from?
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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, can you feel the Molotov tonight?

Q: Hi AWC, as you know, I’ve been enjoying thirst-quenching beverages lately.

A: Ah yes, like lemon squash.

Q: Exactly! Although, this week I’ve been drinking cocktails.

A: Well, aren’t you fancy?

Q: No.

A: It was rhetorical.

Q: Ah okay. So anyway, it got me thinking about the one cocktail that no one ever wants to drink.

A: Long Island Iced Tea?

Q: No silly, I’m talking about the Molotov cocktail!

A: Ah yes, that’s considerably less drinkable.

Q: Why do we call such a distinctive weapon this name?

A: Good question. The “cocktail” in question is likely to be in reference to the fact that this flaming projectile is created in a bottle – probably once containing a different kind of alcohol. Macquarie Dictionary describes it as “an incendiary bomb consisting of a bottle filled with a flammable liquid, usually petrol, turpentine etc, and a saturated wick which is ignited before the bottle is thrown.”

Q: Yep, that’s the one.

A: The fact that it’s actually easier to mix up than most regular cocktails – with no need for club soda, limes or little umbrellas – has made it a popular choice for general thugs and rioters.

Q: Yes I’m sure it’s the lack of umbrellas that makes it popular and not its potential to blow stuff up.

A: Well yes, probably that too. It is effective due to the fireball that typically results upon the bottle smashing against its target.

Q: Okay, this “how to build a bomb” workshop is all very good, but can we get to the name? It sounds Russian.

A: According to the Interwebs, the weapon actually debuted during the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. However, it didn’t get its name until it saw action during what Finland calls “The Winter War”.

Q: When did that happen?

A: It took place in the first few months of World War II, when the Allies were waiting around to see what Germany would do next. While that was happening, the Soviets decided to get in on the invasion game and invaded Finland in late November 1939.

Q: I guess it was quite a cold then?

A: Yes, minus 40 degrees celsius!

Q: Wow, definitely mittens weather. What’s that in fahrenheit?

A: It’s actually the same – minus 40. Just accept that weird temperature conversion quirk!

Q: So, this Winter War. The Soviets hoped to finish off the Finnish?

A: Yep. But they didn’t count on the Finns creating a new weapon to defend themselves. Nearly half a million Molotov cocktails were produced in early 1940 as a legitimate method of fighting back the Soviets. The name was chosen as a slur to then foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov.

Q: So it was just whoever was the Soviet foreign minister who ended up with the name?

A: Yep! The history books often play that game. If the war had been a year earlier, we’d all probably be hurling “Litvinov cocktails” instead – named after Molotov’s predecessor.

Q: Fascinating!

A: By the way, while the idea of a cocktail drink had been around since the early 1800s, the use of the word “cocktail” simply to mean a mix of things, had only been a thing since the 1920s. So here it’s more in reference to a mix of flammable liquids than any kind of attempt to replicate the drinking experience.

Q: Can you clarify the capitalisation?

A: “Molotov” is a proper noun, so it gets a capital. “Cocktail” however, doesn’t need one, so it’ll be ‘Molotov cocktail’.

Q: One final question. Do you think if you wanted to surprise your Jewish friend with a flaming bottle as a way of saying congratulations, you would call it a “Mazeltov cocktail”?

A: That’s a hard no.

Q: Fair enough. Well, that’s quite the cocktail of knowledge you’ve served up this week. Fancy a drink?

A: Sure, how about a White Russian?

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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