Friday, 24 July 2009

carnival and scrabble

Doug Lennox's bestselling book Now You Know and the sequel Now You Know More trace "the concise and fascination history behind hundreds of expressions in our everyday language". Although these books are "thoroughly researched", I don't believe a word of them. Even so, I find them interesting, because although many of the etymologies are wrong or unsupported, I find myself wondering what the real answers are.

His entry "How did the word carnival come to mean a self-indulgent celebration" is a short explanation of Lent, and he only deals with the word itself in the final sentence:

In Church Latin, carne vale literally means "farewell to meat."

The OED tells us that theories like this one "belong to the domain of popular etymology" - i.e., are untrue. The real history of carnival involves metathesis. Latin carō, carnis is "flesh", and *carnem levāre is "the putting away or removal of flesh (as food)", which became carnelevārium, which became Italian carnevale, carnovale - the l and v switched places.

carō, carnis "flesh" is from a form *kar- from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)ker- "to cut". In Proto-Germanic, this became the metathetic variants *skrap- and *skarp. *skrap- became Old English scrapian (modern scrape), and Dutch schrabbelen "to scrawl", borrowed into English as scrabble. *skarp- became sharp.


dayna said...

I wonder if you could recommend any *good* etymology books written for non-linguists?

goofy said...

Any good etymology books that aren't dictionaries, I assume? I haven't read it, but "Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs" by Katherine Barber sounds interesting - she's the editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Lexicographer Erin Mckean has several books, including "Weird and Wonderful Words". You might like some of David Crystal's books, like "Words Words Words" and "The English Language: A Guided Tour of the Language".

Maybe other readers can suggest more.

dayna said...

Thanks. I'll check those out.