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May 11, 1994

Carnival: Putting Away the Flesh and Restoring the OED

Author Affiliations

University of Dayton Dayton, Ohio

JAMA. 1994;271(18):1402. doi:10.1001/jama.1994.03510420034023

To the Editor.  —Dr Murphy's1 remarks on the etymology of carnival should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.Carnival denotes an orgy of gluttony and revelry celebrated just before the beginning of Lent, the season of penance observed by some Christians in preparation for Easter. Modern linguistic authorities agree in tracing carnival to medieval Latin carnilevaria, "taking away the meat"; abstinence from flesh meats was for many centuries a principal feature of the Lenten observance. The existence and purport of the Latin word are beyond dispute, and its evolution into English carnival and kindred words in other modern languages is well attested, in the opinion of linguists, by intermediate forms. Dr Murphy, branding this etymology "far-fetched and ludicrous," derives carnival instead from a phrase meaning "naval carriages" and referring to wheeled ships or shiplike wagons drawn in procession during spring festivals in honor of the Phoenician love goddess Astarte.

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