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When the word carnal turns up nowadays, most people immediately think of sex, a link that goes back almost as far as the word itself. As long ago as 1450, the phrase carnal knowledge appeared in the anonymous romance Merlin, or the Early History of King Arthur, and it and similar phrases have been around ever since.

So you may imagine the images conjured up by the phrase carnal art, which appeared in my newspaper recently. It was referring to an art movement based on body modification, linked especially to the French artist Orlan, who invented the term in 1990 as L’Art Charnel. The English version is rather a poor translation. A better term might have been body art, but that had already been grabbed for art on the body, not art that transforms the body. Orlan is best known for gruesome films of plastic surgery being carried out on her face while she discusses the details to camera. The word has also been applied to other artists who, in the words of one critic of the movement, “exploit, plunder or injure their own bodies to seduce the contemporary art market”. Seduce — we’re back to sex again.

Strictly speaking, carnal means “of flesh”, from Latin caro, flesh. It’s a close relative of carnage, carnivorous, charnel, carrion, carnival (literally, “leaving off meat”, a pre-Lenten festival), and even carnation, whose flowers were described as the colour of European flesh (English didn’t have the word pink then).

English early on used carnal for anything corporeal or material: carnal things or carnals were one’s worldly goods. It was also the opposite or antagonist of spiritual things, unregenerate, unsanctified, worldly (it was used in that sense in the authorised version of the Bible, in Romans, Chapter 8, Verse 7: “The carnal mind is enmity against God”, in which St Paul is referring that what the New English Bible, for example, translates as our “lower nature”). Another sense was “related in flesh”, that is, of one’s blood relatives — long ago you could mention one’s carnal mother or carnal brothers without anybody being tempted to snigger.

Unsurprisingly, it also had the idea of fleshly matters, in reference to the body as the seat of passions or appetites. As late as 1670, more than two centuries after it had first appeared, William Walton could write of “The visible carnal sins of gluttony and drunkenness, and the like”. And two centuries later still, in Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott, we may find: “Demi forgot philosophy, and stuffed like any carnal boy, while Daisy planned sumptuous banquets, and the dolls looked on smiling affably”.

The sexual sense was a pretty obvious next step, taken in the fifteenth century. It turns out to have been one from which we have since not been able to retreat.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 24 Feb 2001