The English Pedant – why carnage is no fun

Look out for a new era of meaning of carnage, word fans. You and I might know it refers to the killing of a number of people and that it has something to do with flesh: carne means meat in Spanish and it exists in English in carnivore – a meat-eater – but Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton doesn’t. He thinks it means a bit of fast fun on four wheels.

“I love overtaking. I love carnage,” he said recently, yearning for his sport to become exciting like it used to be, rather than more or less a procession according to how fast your car is, with relatively little prospect of winning through being a better or more daring driver.

Obviously nobody – even Hamilton – wants to go back to the times when no Grand Prix season was complete without the shocking death of a famous driver. Yet that is what his use of the word suggests.

Carnage is one of those words that don’t see much action because they are connected with something that – mercifully – is not part of everyday life. It sees the light of day from time to time when eye-witnesses are searching for ways of describing a multi-vehicle road accident (known in the UK as a motorway pile-up) or a bomb blast in a crowded place. There was carnage in Paris last year when the terrorist attacks happened.

There is not carnage at a stag party, not even if everybody is “trashed”, “legless” or “paralytic”.

This is just the way language develops – through people getting it wrong and others copying them.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the new breed of language-influencers, by virtue of the fact that he is a popular and prominent person with unprecedented access to the eyes and ears of millions of people via television, radio and the internet.

A week or two after Hamilton’s overtaking/carnage remark, a BBC motor racing journalist – well educated and trained – was being interviewed ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix and, grasping for something to say under the pressure of  a live interview, he threw in the c word in spite of himself. He was visibly aware that it wasn’t what he wanted to say, but out it slipped.

So here we are, possibly at the start of an episode of meaning-shift. It will be interesting to see if this becomes an epidemic.

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