Debunking the “Bistro” Origin: Unveiling the Truth Behind the Russian Soldiers’ Yell

The origin of the word “bistro” has been a subject of debate among linguists and historians for years. One popular theory suggests that the term originated from Russian soldiers who occupied Paris after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. According to this theory, the soldiers would yell “быстро” (pronounced “bistro” and meaning “quickly”) in cafes and restaurants, demanding faster service. However, as a francophile, you might find this etymology hard to swallow. Let’s delve deeper into the origins of the word “bistro” and explore some alternative theories.

The Russian Origin Theory: A Closer Look

The Russian origin theory is largely based on anecdotal evidence and lacks solid historical documentation. While it’s true that Russian soldiers were present in Paris in 1814, there’s no concrete evidence to suggest that they influenced the French language in such a significant way. Moreover, the term “bistro” didn’t appear in French dictionaries until the late 19th century, a good 50 years after the Russians had left Paris. This time lapse casts doubt on the Russian origin theory.

Alternative Theories

Several alternative theories suggest a French origin for the term “bistro”. Here are a few:

  • The word could have derived from “bistraud”, a term used in the Poitou region of France to refer to a small type of domestic servant. Over time, “bistraud” could have evolved into “bistro”, referring to a small café or restaurant.

  • Another theory suggests that “bistro” comes from the French word “bistouille” or “bistrouille”, a colloquial term for a mixture of coffee and brandy, which was often served in bistros.

  • Some linguists believe that “bistro” could be a derivation of “bistre”, meaning “brownish-grey” in French. This could refer to the typical color of the smoke-filled bistros of the 19th century.


While the Russian origin theory is certainly intriguing, it lacks the historical evidence to be considered definitive. The alternative theories, while also not proven, at least offer plausible French origins for the term “bistro”. As with many words, the true origin of “bistro” may never be known with certainty. However, what is undeniable is the cultural significance of bistros in French society, regardless of where their name came from.