Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Carrion Carry-on?

Carrion Carry-on?

I have the good fortune of participating in two wonderful critique groups. Recently, in one of those groups, while critiquing one of Sue McGinty’s manuscripts, we got distracted by the homonyms carrion, carry on & carry-on. Sue’s Bella Kowalski mysteries usually include some humor, but since the carrion/carry-on/carry on humor wasn’t a tree up which protagonist Bella would likely bark, the conversation got off-routed to a Wordmonger column.

Today, the term carry-on (referring to luggage) is probably used thousands of times more per day than the terms carry on or carrion, yet only a couple of decades ago, the opposite would have been true.

To my complete surprise, the earliest printed use I can find of the luggage variety carry-on is 2006. Even more surprisingly, I can find no reliable information regarding when the term entered the language.

Carry on, on the other hand (ooh, sorry about that) showed up as early as 1606 & has a variety of meanings:
                        -to continue or advance
                        -to prevent from stopping
                        -to practice habitually
                        -to behave in a conspicuous way
                        -to conduct, manage or prosecute

All this can be found buried in the nearly three full pages the Oxford English Dictionary dedicates to the word carry, which came to English through Old French from Late Latin, where it meant to convey in a vehicle. This sheds light on carrys relationships with car, cart, cargo, chariot, & carpenter.

On the other hand, carrion came to English through French from the Vulgar Latin word caronia, meaning carcass. If we follow caronia back far enough we find the Latin word caro, or meat. Carrion’s relatives include carnivore, carnal, carnival, carnage, incarnation, & reincarnation. Even the meaning of the word crone refers back to the idea of being carcass-like. Also, though etymologists haven’t finished arm-wrestling over it just yet, some argue that the word crow also comes from caro, presumably because crows include carrion in their diets. Similarly, some etymologists argue that carbine started with caro, though this takes more explanation. It seems that during the years of the plague, people speaking Old French referred to those who bore the corpses as escarrabin, meaning carrion beetle, which morphed into a nasty epithet used to refer to attacking archers, who in time swapped in their archery equipment for small rifles, yet still got called names because they were after all, attacking. In time the epithet for the attackers became associated with their weapon of choice, the carbine.

Dear readers, this week, please join me in some word play. Leave a goofy sentence in the comments box that primarily employs words addressed in this post.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline,


  1. And we can't forget the great "Carry On" Brit films of the 1950s and 60s. Like "Carry On, Sergeant" and "Carry On, Nurse." They were made on very low budgets by the Rank Corporation. And of course, carrion usually smells pretty rank. But maybe I shouldn't go there...Enlightening post as always, Mr. Monger!

    Love Sue McGinty's Bella books. Can't wait for the next one!

    1. Hi Anne,
      Here's hoping your carry-on never smells rank (might cause you to carry on, yes?).

    2. Thanks, Anne. And Charlie. Great post.

      Bella's carry-on, now changed to "overnight case" sounds a bit dated, evoking the days of the Superchief. Hmm. the case contains Bella's Mom's ashes so I guess much could be made of this.

    3. Hi Sue,
      It's a good thing the cremation happened before the carry-on in question, or Bella would be up another tree altogether, wouldn't she?

    4. So, technically, Bella's carry-on, was just slightly past its carrion date, but it still works. And Charlie, if she'd set it earlier historically, maybe Bella's mom would have been a Viking, so she could have been ashes. Except for the boat and the water, and uh, nevermind.

  2. The man with the oversize carry-on which emitted a strange carrion like odor carried on terribly when the attendant told him he had to check it.

    Maybe not exactly goofy but I used all three words!

  3. Enjoyed! Words are sooooo interesting.


  4. Okay, it's old, but so am I. What did the buzzard say when asked if he had luggage to check? No, just carrion. (or carry-on if you prefer...) Also, I say, "Carry on," to my theater students on almost a daily basis when I stop rehearsal, give a direction and then want them to continue. We're so proper and almost British. I also ask if "I can have a word" rather than "I want to talk to you..." it just seems to cause less angst. Love you Charlie!

  5. Ahoy Victoria & MM,
    Thanks for dropping by.
    And Victoria, after spending most of high school in the theatre department & teaching middle school drama 3-4 years, it's no surprise to me that your students are regularly carrying on!

  6. How fun this was, I didn't know about your blog--enjoyed it all.

    1. Greetings Meredith,
      Thanks for coming by. I hope you'll return soon.