The Four Thieves.

Still reading Veltman’s Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life), also called Саломея [Salomea], I hit one of those linguistic-cultural mysteries that took enough unraveling I thought I’d make a post of it. The titular Salomea Petrovna has returned in unexpected circumstances to her parents’ house and her mother has fainted; her father “спрыскивал ее водой, натирал виски спиртом, подносил к носу четырех разбойников и, наконец, возвратил к жизни” [sprinkled her with water, rubbed her temples with spirits, brought four thieves to her nose, and finally returned her to life]. (It is amusing that виски [viskí] ‘temples’ looks exactly like виски [víski] ‘whiskey,’ which is a kind of spirits.) Naturally, the phrase in italics puzzled me, but for a long time googling was fruitless, turning up only references to actual thieves. Then I found a quote from Daniil Mordovtsev, “Четыре поименованные генерала напоминают мне письмо Вольтера: он пишет, что уксус, называемый «четырех разбойников», самое есть действительное средство от заразы” [The four named generals remind me of a letter of Voltaire; he writes that the vinegar called “four thieves” is the most efficient remedy against contagion]. Armed with that, I found an actual recipe in William T. Brannt’s A Practical Treatise on the Manufacture of Vinegar: With Special Consideration of Wood Vinegar and Other By-products Obtained in the Destructive Distillation of Wood …, 2nd ed. (H. C. Baird, 1900), p. 174 (image):

Vinaigre des quatre voleurs. Fresh tops of common wormwood, Roman wormwood, rosemary, sage, mint and rue each ¾ ounce, lavender flowers 1 ounce, garlic, calamus aromaticus, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg each 1 drachm, camphor ½ ounce, alcohol or brandy 1 ounce, strong vinegar 4 pints.

There are plenty of references to it, like this from Jonathan Pereira’s The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Vol. 2 (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1857), p. 499 (image):

In the former Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia there was contained, under the same name, a somewhat similar but weaker preparation, made with diluted acetic acid (i.e. distilled vinegar), in imitation of the celebrated Marseilles Vinegar, or Vinegar of the Four Thieves[fn. 2] (Vinaigre des Quatre-Voleurs; Acetum quatuor Furum), once supposed to be a prophylactic against the plague and other contagious diseases. It was a very useless preparation.

The footnote (image) reads:

“The repute of this preparation as a prophylactic in contagious fevers, is said to have arisen from the confession of four thieves, who, during the plague of Marseilles, plundered the dead bodies with perfect security, and, upon being arrested, stated, on condition of their lives being spared, that the use of aromatic vinegar had preserved them from the influence of contagion. It is on this account sometimes called ‘Le Vinaigre des quatre Voleurs.’ It was, however, long used before the plague of Marseilles, for it was the constant custom of Cardinal Wolsey to carry in his hand an orange, deprived of its contents and filled with a sponge which had been soaked in vinegar impregnated with various spices, in order to preserve himself from infection, when passing through the crowds which his splendour of office attracted. The first plague raged in 1649, whereas Wolsey died in 1531.” (Paris, Pharmacologia, 6th edit. vol. ii. p. 18, Lond. 1825.)

If you google [vinaigre “quatre voleurs”] you can get plenty more; it’s one of those things that was common knowledge in the nineteenth century but has since been utterly forgotten. (Or has it? If anyone is familiar with it, do speak up.)


  1. Absinthe vinegar! Brrr…

  2. It’ll cure what ails ya!

  3. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    Incidentally, I doubt the word виски – meaning whisk(y/ey) was present, or at any rate widely used, in Russian at the time of Veltman’s writing. I have no reference to substantiate that but my feeling is it (the drink and therefore the word) became popular closer to the turn of century.

  4. In Polish you can say ocet siedmiu złodziei ‘seven thieves’ vinegar’ about something very sour (literally or figuratively).

  5. Incidentally, I doubt the word виски – meaning whisk(y/ey) was present, or at any rate widely used, in Russian at the time of Veltman’s writing.

    Oh, I’m sure you’re right, but the coincidence was amusing to me.

  6. In Polish you can say ocet siedmiu złodziei ‘seven thieves’ vinegar’ about something very sour (literally or figuratively).

    Very interesting indeed! So in some quarters the memory has been preserved, at least in idiom.

  7. Trond Engen says

    Another type of spirits is djinn.

  8. Thanks for that much-needed laugh!

  9. Oh, so it’s still known in Russia? Fascinating!

  10. I can confirm it’s ocet siedmiu złodziei in Poland. When stuff was actually used, it was prepared with various herbs and spices: sage, rosemary, wormwood, rue, mint, lavender, angelica, garlic, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, more or less as in the recipe you quote; vinegar was infused with them for twelve days. I found a reference to it in Linde’s Polish Language Dictionary (1807-1815): Ocet siedmiu złodziejów, przeciw powietrzu służy ‘vinegar of the seven thieves, efficatious against plague’. Today it’s only a figure of speech for “something extremely sour”, but in my personal idiolect it can also refer to a fraudulent medicine (or fraud more generally), like snake oil in English.

  11. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    in Russian, the thieves are 4 or occasionally 40
    Surely, 40 must be a contamination coming from the Arabian Nights’ story of Ali Baba?

  12. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    Oh, and a minor correction: самое действительное … средство meant at the time “most efficient [rather than real] remedy”: nowadayas this meaning would be conveyed by the word действенное – which, in its turn, seems to be gradually falling out of use or at least into the domain of archaic or at least high-flown.

  13. Many thanks, I’ve changed it!

  14. The number of the thieves (if specified) seems to be four almost everywhere (cf. Latin acetum quattuor latronum, German Vierräuberessig, etc.), but the variant l’aceto dei sette ladri can be found in Italy (see the English Wikipedia: I have no idea why “four thieves”, but I think I can explain the “seven thieves” variant. It may have been inspired by the once-popular tale of “the Seven Holy Thieves” a.k.a. “the Seven Robbers”, allegedly martyred on Corcyra (Corfu) in the second century. To be sure, they were boiled in oil and pitch, not in vinegar. 😉

  15. And another type of spirits that are applied near виски is духи.

  16. John Burgess says

    The beauty products chain L’Occitan used to carry a men’s cologne under the name Quatre Voleurs. It was indeed a mixture of the herbs mentioned in the post, but without the vinegar. It was actually pretty nice, dry without any sweetness.

  17. marie-lucie says

    The beauty products chain L’Occitan

    It is L’Occitane.

  18. m-l, do you consider yourself un occitane?

  19. My knowledge of Polish is nonexistent, please don’t laugh. In Russian, seven in various sayings just means “many” or “a lot”. Look at this list. I hardly know half of them, BTW. Anyways. Maybe Polish changed four for seven and shifted the meaning from a particular type of vinegar to some vague sense of high sourness as the same process.

    Another cross language correspondence. Russian word in the name of this four thieves’ vinegar is разбойник (someone who commits highway robbery actually, not simply steals), but another possible word with very close meaning is злодей (more generic villain, but coming from the same world of killers and robbers), which is (I didn’t check, but c’mon) cognate with Polish złodziej (thief). And now… Russian does use злой with certain foodstuffs (like garlic) to indicate the high degree of sourness.

  20. Trond Engen says

    I’ve been wondering if the four thieves might be due to a folk-etymology before it was calqued. No idea where it came from, of course, so a Slavic “four (seven) sournesses” is possible, but the distribution across Europe seems more consistent with an origin in Italy or thereabouts. That may in turn suggest Arabic origin, or maybe Latin words falling out of common use.

    All that to lay the ground for a complete shot in the dark: Post-Latin **ager de quadro laderi “vinegar for chest fixing” or **- quadere laderi “- shaking up of the chest”.

  21. marie-lucie says

    JC: I wish I could consider myself une Occitane, but I did not spend enough time in Southern France where my mother’s parents came from. They were from a village in the Tarn department, a poor area, and left to work in Paris. My mother stayed with her grandparents for a while during WWI and spoke the local dialect then, and when she was growing up she spent most summers there too. But after her grandparents died when she was still a child her knowledge of the dialect became mostly passive, and even though she always used a few phrases of it her pronunciation was too French to sound genuine, so that I never wanted to learn from her.

  22. Russian word in the name of this four thieves’ vinegar is разбойник (someone who commits highway robbery actually, not simply steals), but another possible word with very close meaning is злодей

    I was wondering the same. Does thief work for razboinik (my children loved this word, it always distracted them on a long journey, I pretended that we were being chased by razboiniki in the car behind) or is there a wider meaning?

  23. From the list D.O. linked to: “Макару поклон, а Макар на семь сторон.” I have no idea what this quaint proverb means; can anyone explicate it?

  24. “Макару поклон, а Макар на семь сторон.” I have no idea what this quaint proverb means; can anyone explicate it?

    Easy. It means, roughly, “this sh*t makes no sense”. Russian language have scores of absurdist proverbs like this, used when a situation or a solution makes no logical sense.

    A more recent joke apropos logical sense begs to be added:
    – Товарищ лейтенант, вот вы часто говорите “логично”, а что это значит?
    – Поясняю на примере. Видите, вот там стоит высокое дерево? Вот так и человек, живет-живет и помирает.

  25. Apparently only Dahl knew. He gives it under толк-бестолочь (sense and nonsense?). Maybe it’s someone who completely clueless. You say to him “hello” (поклон) and he looks all around (на семь сторон) not knowing whom to reply.

  26. I couldn’t find a source to refer to but yes, if you take Dahl’s prompt, Makar gets a bow (poklon), as a request for help, probably in a simple matter, and he falls apart not knowing how to deal with it.

  27. I really think that poor Makar ends up bowing to 7 directions in response, but as I said, it doesn’t really matter because the proverb is about absurdity and about things making no sense in the first place. Makar always comes across as a hapless loser – that’s the same proverbial Makar who gets hit by all falling pinecones (~~ blamed for every mishap) ((На Макара все шишки валятся).

    Dahl’s толк-бестолочь (“reason and stupidity”) proverbs have several recurring themes which hopefully illiustrate how they were used by people encountering idiotic circumstances.

    A whole slew of them is about going in a preposterously wrong direction (visiting a wrong person, getting to Kazan’ instead of Ryazan’, going to Crimea to fetch cabbages; or going to a supposedly right direction but missing it (not finding Pope in Rome or elephant in a zoo or a door in a room); or changing a subject in conversation (talking of goats instead of business, or Yerema instead of Foma, or a fool instead of a priest); or about catch-22 situations where neither something nor its opposite works; etc. I think you get the theme. Something trully moronic / bassackwards happened, and …

  28. Name Makar is of Greek origin and means “blessed, happy”.

    I have long suspected that many Russian proverbs and sayings involving names of Greek origin are actually a clever word play on their meaning in Greek.

    For example,

  29. changing a subject in conceration (talking of goats instead of business, or Yerema instead of Foma, or a fool instead of a priest)

    This is a very interesting pair and their story is not over yet.

    Do you realise that you are talking about Tom and Jerry?

  30. 🙂

  31. marie-lucie says

    conceration : do you mean conversation ?

  32. of course, M-L

  33. I read it as concertation.

  34. I’ll change it in the original comment to avoid misreading, but leave the subsequent comments to preserve the historical record. (I had no idea what it meant.)

  35. it meant the keyboard which one has to hit too forcefully for the letters to appear 🙁 but the great part of being around the language people is learning all the words I never knew existed 🙂

  36. толк-бестолочь (“reason and stupidity”)

    Just ran across another interesting phrase: Андроны едут “the Androns (?) are going,” used by Sologub in Тяжёлые сны [Bad Dreams] (1895); it turns up more recently, in company with other terms meaning ‘nonsense,’ in this quote from Любовь Кабо. Наедине с другом. Беседы (1985): “Но именно тут ничего у них и не получалось: ‘Андроны едут, чепуха, белиберда, сапоги всмятку!..'”

  37. It’s a phrase meaning to talk nonsense.

    From Polish I believe, but maybe contaminated with dialectal Russian word meaning a type of wagon.

    Polish Wiktionary:

    Androny (z grec. andronitis – dom, mieszkanie mężczyzn i łac. andron) – brednie, głupstwa, w szczególności w zwrotach: pleść androny – opowiadać głupstwa.

  38. Interesting, but doesn’t explain why it means that in Polish to begin with.


  1. […] Languagehat has been reading more Vel’tman and found a forgotten bit of nineteenth-century realia: the four thieves. […]

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