April 23, 2013

Case File #013.04.23: CARNATION

If you wanted to use etymology to demonstrate the ethnocentrism of sixteenth-century Western Europeans, the history of the word carnation would be a good place to start. When carnation found its way into the English lexicon circa 1540—a time when most, if not all, English speakers were Caucasian—it originally meant “the color of skin,” and that definition makes sense when you consider that the word was borrowed from the Middle French carnation, meaning “complexion,” which in turn ultimately came from the Latin carnosus, meaning “fleshy” or “flesh-like.” Towards the end of the sixteenth century, however, the English word carnation came to be applied not to skin pigmentation in general but to a specific rosy pink color and a naturally pink flower (Dianthus caryophyllus). And if a semantic shift from “skin color” to “rosy pink” isn't an indicator of sixteenth-century Caucasoid conceit, nothing is.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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