The word carnival is interesting in its own right; despite appearances — OED: “The explanations ‘farewell flesh, farewell to flesh’ (from Latin vale) found already in Florio, and ‘down with flesh!’ (from French aval), belong to the domain of popular etymology” — it’s from medieval Italian carnelevale, from (again quoting the OED) “Latin *carnem levāre, or Italian *carne levare (with infinitive used subst. as in il levar del sole sunrise), meaning ‘the putting away or removal of flesh (as food)’, the name being originally proper to the eve of Ash Wednesday.” But in lit-crit circles it’s strongly associated with the name of Bakhtin (Wikipedia), and I had never thought about where he picked it up. I just ran across an intriguing footnote from Katerina Clark’s Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (see this post) and thought I’d share it:

The term “carnival” is actually sparingly present in the early chapters of the dissertation, but its use increases from chapter to chapter until it becomes the dominant term for his analysis in chapter 4. Before then, especially in chapter 1, his main term is “Gothic realism.” The final draft of the dissertation was probably begun no earlier than November 1938, but some work on Rabelais may have been begun earlier in the decade. One might therefore speculate that Bakhtin adopted the term “carnival” only at some point after it became central to Soviet official cultural practice in 1935, but this could only be speculation; “Istoriia ‘Rable’: 1930–1950-gody,” in M. M. Bakhtin, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 4 (1), ed. I. L. Popova (Moscow: Iazyki slavianskikh kul’tur, 2008), 841, 846, 858).

Speculation, sure, but what interesting speculation! And the very existence of official Soviet carnivals was new to me as well; there’s a considerable amount about them in Karen Petrone’s Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin, which I should read one of these days.


  1. marie-lucie says

    ‘down with flesh!’ (from French aval)

    This was obviously not proposed by a French person. French (en) aval means ‘downstream’, in opposition to (en) amont ‘upstream’. It used to mean ‘to lower’ (says the TLFI) but nowadays is the normal word for ‘to swallow’ (to ‘lower’ the food down the gullet).

    If you mean to say “Down with …!” the equivalent is À bas …! bas = ‘low’).

    The word for “flesh” is la chair, which is no longer used for ‘meat’ as a food, but the borrowing la carne can be used for bad, almost inedible meat (hard, difficult to chew, etc).

  2. Yes, I thought the aval idea was strange myself, and wondered who proposed it. (The OED entry is from 1888.)

  3. marie-lucie says

    Thanks for the instant correction (whether human or automatic).

  4. Oh, that was me; I wouldn’t trust software to edit people’s comments!

  5. From Testimony of D. Shchostakovich, based on conversations with Solomon Volkow:

    Я обнаружил, к своему удивлению, что человек, который считается величайшим дирижером, не понимает моей музыки. Он говорит, что в Пятой и Седьмой симфониях я хотел написать ликующие финалы, но не справился. Этому человеку невдомек, что я никогда не думал ни о каких ликующих финалах, да и какое тогда могло быть ликование? Думаю, всем ясно, что происходит в Пятой. Радость вызвана насильственно, возникает из-под палки, как в «Борисе Годунове». Как будто кто-то бьет тебя палкой и приговаривает: «Твое дело — радоваться, твое дело — радоваться», — и ты поднимаешься, шатаясь, и маршируешь, бормоча: «Наше дело — радоваться, наше дело — радоваться».


    I was surprised to find that a man regarded as the great conductor [Yevgeniy Mravinskiy] does not understand my music. He says that in the Fifth and the Seventh symphonies I wanted to write exhilarating finals, but failed. He’s unaware that I never thought about jubilant finals and what jubilation there might have been at that time? I think, it’s clear for everyone what is going on in the Fifth. The joy is a forced one, as in Boris Godunov. As if someone is hitting you with a rod saying: “You must rejoice, you must rejoice”, and then you get up, staggeringly, and walk mumbling “we must rejoice, we must rejoice”.

  6. the early Russian casual reference to a homegrown Carnival which was instantly brought up by my memory is Utesov’s classic “Find me if you can” but it appears to have been recorded in 1940.

    An earlier checkpoint is Belyaev’s 1936 scifi classic, “KETs Star”. And there are numerous reference to “book carnivals”, “marksmanship carnivals”, and Selvinsky’s verse even has “карнавал «Красного сахара», «Резинотреста»” in 1934 – so basically it looks like any festival or celebration could have been dubbed “a carnival” then.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Thanks LH, but … more oops!! I don’t know what happened, but this is what I meant in my second sentence:

    (En) aval ‘downstream’ is in opposition to (en) amont ‘upstream’.

    As for those two words, they begin with the prefix a- attached to concrete geographical terms: le val means ‘valley, dale’ and le mont is another word for ‘mountain’. Both nouns are frequent in toponyms, and have something of an archaic, poetic flavour, while the longer derivatives la vallée and la montagne are the general terms in modern speech.

  8. Fixed!

  9. Карнавал with the meaning of mass celebration, but without any connection to the Lent, is pretty normal in pre-revolutionary Russia. There are many examples in the National Corpus.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Merci encore, LH!

  11. D.O., I followed the link and the whole 1st page of examples was either carnivals abroad, or timed to Lent at home.

    Indeed, Ushakov’s 1935 dictionary lists the secular domestic meaning as a neologism:
    2. Праздничная революционно-политическая демонстрация с аллегорическими изображениями лозунгов (неол.). Первомайский карнавал.
    (A festive revolutionary-political rally with allegoric depictions of slogans. Labor Day Carnival.)

    But Chudinov’s 1910 dictionary still lists it as solely religious / calendary / W European

  12. Putting together the progress of carne-levare to carneval, losing that middle ‘l’, and Marie-Lucie’s proffer of la chair for carne, I wonder whether the French term charivari may be related.

  13. First two examples are for the end of February and beginning of March so they might have some relation to the Lent

    Корр. «Руля». Московская жизнь. Карнавал в Благородном собрании Вчера во всех залах Благородного собрания был устроен концерт-карнавал студентов-петровцев. Центром явилось «Шествие богов Эллады, вызванных режиссером театра Незлобина Ф. Комиссаржевским». Молодежь, переполнившая залы собрания, закончила свое веселие танцами.

    Карнавал на льду Вчера на катке Чистых прудов состоялся оживленный карнавал, собравший многочисленную публику; было много костюмированных. Первый дамский приз был присужден г-же Гайдаровой за костюм «тыква»; второй ― г-же Жуковой за костюм «комета»; первый мужской достался г. Садовскому за костюм «Бухарец», а второй г-ну Колину за костюм «зайца».

    But here it’s 6 September.
    Телеграммы. Карнавал в Ялте Ялта, 6 сентября. Начались карнавальные празднества, посвященные крымскому виноградному сезону. Празднества продолжатся шесть дней.

    Карнавал на льду 18 января, вечером, на катке московского речного яхт-клуба в доме Обидиной, состоялся карнавал, который прошел очень оживленно; было до 1000 человек публики, явилось много костюмированных, однако оригинальных костюмов было мало.

    Карнавал велосипедистов Очень удачный карнавал устроил вчера в залах Немецкого клуба московский клуб велосипедистов, Было немало оригинальных костюмов, из которых можно отметить: «Морское царство» (г-жа Боголепова), «Железка» (г-жа Михневич), «Царевна-лягушка» (г-жа Шмидт).

    July in New York
    На днях в Нью-Иорке, в одном из садов, расположенных на крыше многоэтажного дома, было устроено празднество ― карнавал «Середина лета». Часть сада (иначе крыши) была обращена в ледяной каток и на нем артисты театра варьетэ катались на коньках, танцевали и играли в снежки.

    Not a lot, so maybe you are right…

  14. For an alternate theory of “carnival,” check out “Carnival, the Enigma of a Name” in Philippe Walter’s Christianity: The Origins of a Pagan Religion. (Walter sees carne levare as a kind of Christianizing folk etymology and posits a connection to the pre-Christian “goddess of pork and beans,” Carna.)

  15. the pre-Christian “goddess of pork and beans,” Carna.

    I love it. Of course, pork and beans should have a divine sponsor. This would be similar to Dixie, the goddess of grits.

  16. Not a lot, so maybe you are right

    The dictionary cites are pretty compelling.

  17. Spanish Academy also says that « carnaval » came from the Italian “carnevale”, a haplology of “carne levare”, and adds it’s a borrowed word from Greek “apokreos” (without flesh; Carnival).

  18. marie-lucie says

    ryan: I wonder whether the French term charivari may be related.

    Not at all, according to the TLFI.

    Un charivari was typically a “mock concert” improvised with metal pots, rattles, whistles and other noisemakers, as well as howling and screaming, in order to disrupt the wedding night of couples such as remarrying widows and widowers, or couples considered ill-assorted. Tying such objects to the back of a car to be banged on the road is a remnant of this custom.

    However, the word seems to be more or less onomatopeic and refer to a “cacophony”. The TLFI tentatively proposes an origin in a Greek word such as caribaria which may have meant ‘headache’, something which might be caused by a loud cacophony, but the word would have had to be borrowed very early to start with cha not ca.

    Note that the French word for “carnival” is le carnaval starting with ca. This means that the word was borrowed from Italian fairly late, unlike la chair from Latin caro, carnis in which the change of initial ca to cha is a regular development which occurred quite early.

  19. marie-lucie says

    Jesús: Spanish Academy also says that « carnaval » came from the Italian “carnevale”, a haplology of “carne levare”, and adds it’s a borrowed word from Greek “apokreos” (without flesh; Carnival).

    The Greek word may have been translated into Italian, but the process is not a “borrowing” (otherwise the Spanish word might be something like “apocreo”) but a “calque” (a word created by translating parts of a foreign word). But a Spanish calque would have been something like “sincarne”.

    However, the traditional festivities mark the last day of eating flesh, not the first day of going without.

  20. A charivari is also called a shivaree in the United States, and that was the form in which I first encountered it, in my great-grandmother’s book about her parents in Tennessee in the late 1800s.

  21. J. W. Brewer says

    In Greek, one of the last days on which meat may “officially” be eaten before Lent (rather, before the transitional “Cheese Week” during which according to the Orthodox fasting tradition dairy is ok but meat-as-such is not), has the striking name I don’t know if there’s a Russian/Slavonic equivalent name for that.

  22. While trying to research that, I discovered that the Russian Wikipedia article for Карнавал has the long-discredited folk etymology from Latin vale (taken over from Max Vasmer)! Somebody should fix that.

  23. >Marie-lucie
    Yes, it’s true. Actually, our dictionary says “calco” and I looked it up in Wordreference where I read “borrowed word”. As for supposed Spanish “apocreo”, the Italian word is what was created from the Greek one.
    The text is:
    (Del it. carnevale, haplología del ant. carnelevare, de carne, carne, y levare, quitar, y este calco del gr. ἀπόκρεως).
    1. m. Los tres días que preceden al comienzo de la Cuaresma.
    2. m. Fiesta popular que se celebra en tales días, y consiste en mascaradas, comparsas, bailes y otros regocijos bulliciosos.
    3. m. despect. Conjunto de informalidades y actuaciones engañosas que se reprochan en una reunión o en el trato de un negocio.”

  24. JWB – it’s Thursday sandwiched between no-meat Wed. & Fri., but it has no special significance in Russian. In Polish and other Western Slavic languages Fat Thursday is the start of Mięsopus (Polish pseudo-calque of Carnival relying on the famed “discredited etymology”)

    When the word entered Russian (perhaps from Polish) as Мясопуст, it didn’t just calque the etymology we now disagree with – it also started changing meanings and dates to conform with this etymology, transparent to Russian speakers as ~~ “emptied of meat”. So Мясопуст on the one hand continued to designate the last days before Lent when meat was still allowed, but on the other hand it also came to mean the Lent itself!

    Moreover, the use of Myasopust etymology-model expanded, creating similarly conceptualized words such as Syropust (сыропуст) ~~ “emptied of cheese”, again confusingly applied sometimes to the last days before Lent, and in other contexts, to Lent itself.

    When folk etymology is first used for calqueing, and then for re-interpretation of the meaning, and then as a model for further word-creation – how do we call that?

  25. J. W. Brewer says

    Dmitry: so Мясопуст got muddled with Ма́сленица? The dominant phrasing among English-speaking Orthodox seems to be “Cheese Week” (calquing the Greek) rather than “Butter Week” (calquing the Russian/Slavonic), although I personally think of it as “Pizza Week” and/or “Tuna Melt Week.”

  26. A Lithuanian (or maybe Latvian, it was a while ago) acquaintance once gave me a completely secular explanation of Carnival (complete with etymology and pancakes), it sounded like she was unaware there was ever any connection to Lent or christianity at all. I wondered at the time if it was some soviet creation, but I didn’t want to ask her.

  27. In Russian Масленица is equivalent to the more ecclesiastically-formal Сырная Седмица / Сыропустная Седмица, but it is frequently muddled with Мясопуст (although in the current approved Orthodox interpretation Мясопустная is either the previous week or the previous Sunday – to add to the confusion, неделя may stand both for a week or for a Sunday). The usage of the deceptively simialr noun vs. adjective Мясопуст / Мясопустная may be different, with the noun getting more generic use. Hey it’s Orthodoxy, it must be confusing and complicated and impenetrable or it just won’t get the same respect.

    A large fraction of the contemporary Russians observing traditional “Butter Week” Масленица (but not particularly fond of fish) fill their blintzes / bliny with ground meat anyway. It’s Myasopust, man, whatever it means!

  28. I am just rereading now “The Golden Calf” and there Ostap mentions “политкарнавал” (political carnival). I googled around a bit and it seems that it was a tradition in a second half of 1920s to include on various public occasions the live displays with humorously arranged political messages. Like a clergymen sitting on the lap of a capitalist or (from The Golden Calf itself) a coffin of “bureaucratism” (not surprisingly for The Golden Calf, it was one of the main activities of a bureaucrat).

  29. Excellent find! I wonder if anyone’s done a study of this topic?

  30. Spotted a Hungarian word “farsang” (Carnival) today, apparently a borrowing (with a peculiar insertion of “r” sound) from Bavarian / Austrian Fasching which is explained as a medieval truncation of Fastenschank, lit. Fast’s Serving which is variously interpreted as either the last portion of pre-Lent food or the last drink of alcohol? But the German wikipedia also cites a different hypothesis, <= Middle Low German vastgang, “onset of fast”.

    In an interesting parallel to the early Soviet secular uses of the word “carnival” (while the Orthodox church used different synonyms), it appears that the Nazis also appropriated one of the synonyms specifically for the secular celebrations, leaving another word for the religious purposes.

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