‘This carnage stops here,’ declared the headline in the Daily Telegraph, quoting President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. My husband tried to make little jokes about it. ‘Would you buy a used carnage from this man?’ was probably the best, by which you can imagine the standard of the others.
I wondered when I first read it what slaughter or butchery Mr Trump was referring to. ‘This American carnage stops right here’ were the exact words. Immediately beforehand he had been talking of ‘mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape’, a poor education system and the harm done by gangs and drugs. He wasn’t conjuring up specifically bloody elements in any of this.
I suppose Mr Trump doesn’t know what carnage means, or to be more generous, he was adopting a sense used by some in defiance of its origins, just as people say chronic to mean ‘terrible’. In making this accusation I am not employing the ‘etymological fallacy’, which erroneously asserts that words must mean what they always used to. It’s just that in mainstream English, carnage has not yet come to mean desolation unrelated to killing or the shedding of blood.
There have been plenty of references to carnage in the news recently. There was the carnage of tourists shot in Tunisia in 2015. Or the usual carnage of an Indian train crash. A figurative use came in a cricket report in the Guardian: ‘ “Keep belting him!” implores Nasser Hussain from the commentary box, like a Roman emperor yearning for carnage.’ So like carnal knowledge and carnival, carnage retains its connections with fleshy matters.