There is mixed-up anger in this word, following the beginning of calamity. It is what happens when you see rage creeping out of its can. Oh, this word brings to mind a battlefield of senseless slaughter, or else something founded on the same as a metaphor – one’s dining-room table after a particularly successful dinner party, for instance.
It could actually have come to mean one’s dining-room table before a particularly successful dinner party. Its immediate source, French carnage, comes from Italian carnaggio, defined in 1611 as “slaughter, murther; also all manner of flesh meate” (thanks to the OED for that quote). That in turn comes from late Latin carnaticum, meaning “meat” (I would hope that you, as an avid word taster, will recognize the hungry carn root, as seen in carnal – and also carnival and carnation and incarnadine…). Carnaticum also meant specifically “meat supplied by tenants to their feudal lords” (does this make it serf-and-turf?). And Old French charnage could mean “a feast of flesh” or “a day or season when flesh is eaten” (a Catholic church calendar concept). So why not parallel verbiage, a spread of words, with carnage, a spread of meat to eat?
But in modern usage, the meat in question is not for us to eat; to quote the title (English translation) of a book by Anatole France, “the gods will have blood” – and flesh, too. France was referring to the French revolution, which certainly produced carnage of the human kind, but all wars do the same. And then people write songs and poems and novels and make movies about it. Like Robert Burns’s “Battle of Sherra-Moor”:
The red-coat lads wi black cockauds,
To meet them were na slaw, man;
They rush’d and push’d, and bluid outgush’d,
And monie a bouk did fa’, man!
The great Argyle led on his files,
I wat they glanc’d for twenty miles;
They hough’d the clans like nine-pin kyles,
They hack’d and hash’d, while braid-swords clashed,
And thro they dash’d, and hew’d and smash’d,
Till fey men died awa, man.
In more recent usage, Iraq and Bosnia come up commonly in connection with carnage. The most common collocation is actually amid the carnage; one will also often see among the carnage, though purists will protest that among requires individuals, whereas carnage is a mass noun. (Mass carnage also shows up, but not quite as commonly.) The phrase scene of carnage is common, too, and here’s a warning: if you see this phrase, you are likely next to see a description of the scene in question. Other words often seen near it are witnessed and, alas, continues.
But if you go to clusty.com, which clusters search results by themes, the top theme – with the most results – is game. I’m really not sure if that’s good or bad.
Thanks to David Moody for suggesting today’s word.