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Flipping through the Independent on Sunday last weekend, I found a reference to “the cost of cleaning up the carnage left in the City of London by violent clashes between anarchist demonstrators and police”. Hang on a minute, I thought, piles of dead bodies scattered about the streets? Why haven’t we been told?

But as I read on, it became clear I’d been duped by some overwrought journalistic language. Stones and concrete blocks had been thrown at police, one motorist had been drenched in bleach for reasons unknown, but casualties had actually been rather light. Nobody dead and only a few injured, though a lot of damage done.

So are we to run the risk of losing yet another useful word from our language, just because a sloppy and time-pressed writer wanted an emotive term to pack out a minor update to an oldish story? I very much hope not, but the auguries are not good. And yet carnage is one of the most powerful words in the language — my thesaurus offers me the alternatives of bloodshed, slaughter, massacre, butchery and bloodbath.

Carnage derives from Latin caro, meaning flesh or meat, which was the source of the medieval Latin carnaticum for the slaughter of animals and for the meat that resulted. In particular it referred to the ration of flesh that tenants had to provide to their feudal lords. This word moved through Italian and French to appear in English as the figurative term carnage. It was introduced by Philemon Holland early in the seventeenth century, to evoke an image of the bloody butcher’s shop transferred to the hand-to-hand hack and slash of the battlefield. He employed it in translations of various Latin and Greek authors, but it was only taken up by other writers many years later.

Some other words derived from caro are obvious enough, like carnivore for a meat-eating animal; carrion for the dead flesh of animals; and charnel house, a place in which dead bodies were placed. But would you put that attractive flower the carnation in the same group? One theory is that it was named in the sixteenth century because its flowers were a pink that reminded people of the colour of flesh. But it might just be linguistic confusion, as it had earlier had the name coronation, perhaps because it had been used in chaplets or because its flowers looked like little crowns. And carnival, another odd word derived from caro, came to be so named because such festivities were originally held in the period leading up to Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent in which meat was not eaten (carnival means to put away flesh).

But none of these evoke an image of a demonstrator throwing a brick at a policeman. Long may carnage remain so.

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Page created 26 Jun 1999