I first became aware of this word in conjunction with car wax.
Advertisers and marketers know that if you can add in a little extra detail about something, it makes it sound special, even if that detail is trivially true. I sometimes eat breakfast in a restaurant that makes sure to say that certain egg dishes are served with “off-the-bone baked ham.” Well, I sure don’t expect to see a big ham bone in the middle of my plate with the eggs, but it somehow makes it more vividly appetizing to paint the picture. Likewise, when my dad used to take the car to get washed, we would be given the option of adding carnauba wax to the drying. Not just wax, eh, but carnauba wax. Because that sounds like something special.
It also planted in my youthful mind an association between carnauba and car. Well, why not? In fact, I wondered if carnauba might just be an elaborated form of car, like super-duper is of super. It has a hint of carnival and nubile and maybe jubilee, and it has that soft rhythm of a word like gazonga.
Anyway, one thing was sure: carnauba was the name of a wax you put on cars.
A few years later I was looking at a box of Smarties. (For the Americans here: everywhere but the US, Smarties are like chocolate M&Ms, but flatter like Reese’s Pieces. For non-Americans: in the US, the brand Smarties is used on little coloured sugar pills in a roll. I’m not talking about those. We call those Rockets in Canada.) I looked at the ingredients, because that’s what there is to read and I was curious (you get to be a little smartie by reading what’s in your Smarties). I noticed, at the end, “carnauba wax.”
What the heck! I was eating car wax? Was it balling up in my stomach?
Well, it hadn’t hurt me so far. Let’s polish off the rest of the box and see.
Nope, seems OK. Better have some more to make sure.
In fact, carnauba wax is used for quite a few things. It’s a hard, glossy polishing wax, sometimes mixed with softer waxes to make it more manageable; it adds a shine to quite a few things, and it’s burned in some candles too (use it in the hard wax around the outside that helps cup the softer wax in the middle so it burns up rather than running down). Many pills have it on them to give them a glossy shine. But it’s only a hundredth of a percent of the weight of the pill – or the Smartie. So in a 40-gram box, you have about 4 mg of wax. The sugar will get to you long before the wax does. They put carnauba wax on some fruits, too, to make them shine.
Where does this word carnauba come from, then? From the name of the tree that the wax comes from, the carnauba palm. It grows in northeastern Brazil, and the Portuguese word carnauba appears to come from the Tupi word karana’iwa. The leaves are the source of the wax. Apparently the fruit is edible. I doubt they bother putting wax on it, though.
Anyway, it has nothing etymologically to do with cars and, in spite of being from Brazil, nothing to do with carnival either. But carnauba wax still sounds like it’s worth more than just plain wax.