Words: Carnage

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The Independent Online
"SHOCKED commuters covered in blood ran from the carnage and collapsed on pavements," said the report in Today. "CARNAGE", said the Express caption in bold capitals. "Carnage in cafeland," said the caption in the Mail. The story was last week's Paris Metro explosion, but only the tabloids, so far as I could see, wheeled on the evocative word.

Caro, genitive carnis, is the Latin for flesh, and carnage reeks of mangled bodies. Poets have used it for horror-inducing purposes. Milton has a personified Death recognising the path from Hell to earth by the "scent of carnage"; Byron writes of "the crowning carnage" at Waterloo. Other words from the same root are just as powerful. Charnel (as in charnel house) is one of them. Carnal desire, a phrase now out of fashion, reminded Christians that while the flesh brought pain it could also bring guilt. Carnivores are red in tooth and claw. The only really jolly word I can think of is carnival, which used to mean a pre-Lenten feast in preparation for the 40 meatless days; its literal meaning seems to have been "giving up flesh".

That Today reporter may have forgotten about carnage's long ancestry, but it's still there. Sadly, though, its batteries are rapidly running down. Popular journalism has already debased such once-strong words as terror, chilling, callous, fury and brave, hardly found now in the broadsheet press. Carnage must follow; indeed, its almost casual use in Today ("ran from the carnage" etc) suggests that it's well on the way. (Compare the intro in my local paper: "A Lewes postman died in a horror crash on Tuesday ...") It may even end up like diabolical, once a word to freeze the blood, now hardly more than a passing comment.