I mentioned to someone yesterday that I would be at my school’s athletics carnival today.
“Ooooh, car-nee-vah-lee!” they exclaimed with a twinkle in their eye.
Brightly coloured images of vivid costumes, scantily clad women and wild parties in Rio de Janeiro flashed through my mind.
“Er… not quite!” I responded. “It’s not that colourful! And it’s a school event, so let’s keep it family-friendly, shall we?”
This got me thinking about the different meanings of carnival, and wondering what a rowdy celebration or a colourful parade might have to do with a school track and field sports day.
In my mind, the answer was obvious: not much.
So, as is my usual habit, I turned to Etymonline for some insights.
The English word carnival dates back to the 1540s, when it was used to refer to a “time of merrymaking before Lent”. This was derived from French carnaval, which in turn came from the Italian word carnevale which referred to Shrove Tuesday. This came from older Italian forms such as Milanese carnelevale and Old Pisan carnelevare which meant to remove meat, presumably referring to changing one’s diet for the period leading up to Easter.
Etymonline also offered the folk etymology — that is, a popular but generally untrue story about the origins of a word— that carnival came from the Medieval Latin words carne and vale meaning ‘flesh, farewell!’
In the late 1500s , carnival had come to mean feasting or revelry in general.
Carnival being used in reference to a circus, sideshow or amusement fair developed in American English in the early 20th century.
That was as far as Etymonline got me, so I looked up a few other websites, but none of them shed any more light on the answer to my question.
I am still no closer to understanding why a series of track and field events is called a carnival.
Consequently, I am left performing some folk etymology of my own: perhaps it relates to the celebration of the physical achievements of the competitors, or the cheering and noise made by the spectators. It could even relate to the pre-competition parading of competitors, team colours and mascots that used to be popular but, thankfully, is much less fashionable now.
Perhaps, though, it’s just one of those weird quirks of English that I’ll never really understand.