Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Celebrating an Etymological "Carnival"

On the latest installment of Slate's podcast Lexicon Valley, I look at the roots of the festive word carnival, associated with pre-Lenten celebrations around the Christian world. Some scholars speculate that the true origins of carnival actually lie in pagan rituals predating Christianity.

When Americans hear the word carnival, their first thoughts may be of a traveling amusement show. That sense of the word dates back to the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the big World's Fair held in Chicago. On the Midway Plaisance, the Fair had a kind of an elaborate sideshow, complete with rides, like the first-ever Ferris Wheel, and many other enticing attractions.

Afterwards, Chicago's Midway turned into a portable experience, as traveling carnival companies brought mechanical rides, games, and concessions to towns across the country, each of which could have its own "midway." By the 1930s, the folks who worked at the carnivals became known as carnies, complete with their own carny lingo unknown to the "rubes" who frequented the fairs.

But before carnival became unmoored from the liturgical calendar, it was a Christian word, or more precisely a Catholic one. Carnival and related forms in other languages have historically referred to the often raucous festivities culminating in the day before Lent begins, known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French).

Since the Lenten season involves giving up meat, it's easy to see the connection to the Latin word for meat or flesh: caro (carnis in the genitive case), which also gives us carnal, carnivore, and other meaty words. One popular explanation has been that carnival time is when one says "farewell to flesh," or carne vale, with vale representing a Latin good-bye (literally "be strong" or "be well").

The carne vale explanation goes back many centuries. John Florio's 1611 Italian-English dictionary, Queen Anna's New World of Words, defines the Italian word carnevale as the time "when flesh is bidden farewell." Two centuries later, Lord Byron gave the same etymology in his extended poem of 1817, Beppo: A Venetian Story, which takes place during carnival time in Venice:

This feast is named the Carnival, which being
Interpreted, implies "farewell to flesh":
So call'd, because the name and thing agreeing,
Through Lent they live on fish, both salt and fresh.

But "farewell to flesh" is actually a folk etymology with no historical basis. Etymologists point to the earliest recorded uses of the word in northern Italian dialects from the 12th century, where the forms carnelevale or carnelevare appear. Based on this evidence, it would appear that the term grew out of the Latin phrase carnem levare, or "the taking away of meat," which then became carnelevare in Old Italian, then carnelevale, then carnevale by omission of a syllable (known as haplology).

But some scholars of medieval Europe think that this too represents a folk etymology, taking a pre-existing word for a festivity and giving it a Christian gloss. The chief proponent of this theory is the French historian Philippe Walter, whose book Mythologie Chrétienne, translated in English as Christian Mythology, posits that the word carnival predates Christianity and was rationalized as "taking away of meat" in order to Christianize pagan rituals.

The rituals that Walter focuses on have to do with a mythical figure known as Carna. According to Roman scribes such as Ovid, Carna was a goddess to whom a sacrifice was given of beans and fatty meat, particularly pork. One can see in later carnival celebrations a focus not just on rich, fatty foods (as in Fat Tuesday), but also rituals involving beans. The king cake, for instance, originally was a cake in which a bean was hidden, with the finder of the bean named "king of the feast." (More recently, the hidden item has been a porcelain or plastic figurine.)

As for the val element, Walter suggests a connection to the mid-February feast day of St. Valentine. Long before Valentine's Day was celebrated romantically with cards and chocolates, February 14th was a date on the Christian calendar to commemorate the martyrdom of Valentine. As Walter points out, Valentine actually represents no fewer than five different saintly figures of early Christianity, and he sees that as evidence that the feast day was intended to camouflage an older pagan celebration, perhaps involving that val syllable.

You can find much more on this in the first chapter of Walter's book, entitled "Carnival, The Enigma of a Name." While it may be nothing more than educated conjecture, it's fascinating to think that our contemporary carnival owes its origins to a figure that Walter delightfully dubs "the goddess of pork and beans."

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.