I grew up in Canada, so my first acquaintance with carnival was in reference to a travelling fair – merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels and so on are called carnival rides, and the archetypal sound of a carnival is that of a calliope. It all tastes and smells of candied popcorn, and has that air of dizziness and queasiness from grease and sugar and circular motion.
But outside of Canada and the United States, carnival has not really slid over to that meaning. No, it’s still the original: something else, much bigger, less like Disney and more like Dionysus. I imagine that we all, as adults aware of the world, know of the carnival in Rio de Janeiro and many other countries (notably in the Caribbean): a massive festival of music and dancing and masked parades, and an incredible spree of consumption. A real Mardi Gras.
Exactly a real Mardi Gras. Carnival is an event that takes place on, or leading up to, Mardi Gras, “fat Tuesday,” the last day before Lent: today. Shrove Tuesday (shrove is not an old word for “pancake”, by the way). Look, if you’re going to have to spend 40 days being lean and austere, you really want a blow-out beforehand. And so carnival is a time of unrivalled carnality, of craving and devilry, with more pyrotechnics than Cape Canaveral (and perhaps more pirates than old Cornwall). Never mind the calliope: here come the bands and drums. It’s like being on a cruise ship (a Carnival ship, to be precise) times a thousand.
And then you wave goodbye to the meat, all that fabulous fat and flesh, and put it away. Which is where carnival comes from. Not from carne vale, “farewell to meat”, as I (like many others) thought for a long time, but from Italian carne levare or Latin carnem levare, “putting away (or removing) flesh”. It passed through carnelevarium and carnelevale before trimming down to Latin carnevale. The word as we have it has a smorgasbord of consonants: voiceless stop, liquid, voiced fricative, liquid, dancing from the back to the tip of the tongue to the teeth and lips to the tongue tip again (with the tongue raising up at last in back like the massive feathers attached to many a carnival dancer’s backside).
And so people remove a lot of clothing (and put on some costumes that don’t even cover the navel) and put away a lot of flesh (i.e., eat a lot of meat) – and drink a lot, and eat fat, and so on – in a celebration that is named for what happens right after it. But first, the dizziness and queasiness from all the consumption and dancing!