Before observing the fasts and penances of Lent, today many Catholics (and other revelers) will celebrate with the feasts and parties of Mardi Gras. As you probably well know, Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” but why do the French call Mardi Gras Mardi Gras?
The French name for “Tuesday” and with an earlier form of marsdi, mardi is derived from the Latin diēs Martis, “Day of Mars,” the Roman god of war. In fact, the English Tuesday is a loan translation of this very diēs Martis, as Germanic tribes modeled their names for the days of the week on the Romans’. Tuesday comes from the Old English Tiwesdæg, or “Day of Tiw,” a Germanic god of war considered an equivalent to Mars. But the Romans weren’t original, for Martis diēs is itself adopted from the Greek’s own ἡμέρα Ἄρεος (hemera Areos), or “Day of Ares,” the Greek war god.
Based on various astrological considerations and astronomical calculations, these Greco-Roman days of the week were named after planets, which were named after gods, though the particular seven-day concept is rooted in Jewish–and yet more ancient–traditions.
Etymologists can’t quite marshal up a secure origin for Mars–few origins ever are secure, really–but many posit roots in the name of an ancient Italic deity. Diēs, however, is reconstructed in *dyeu-, the Proto-Indo-European root for “to shine”–which, in one of those scintillating surprises of word histories, ultimately bestowed Tiw, Zeus, Jupiter, and yet other deities their very names.
Maybe some celebrants eat foie gras on Mardi Gras. The second element of both noun phrases are the same. The French gras is from the Latin crassus, which could mean “thick,” “solid,” “stout,” or just plain “fat,” as well “dense” not only in composition but also in intelligence. Crassus yielded Late Latin forms referring to “animal fat,” hence the French gras and, eventually, the English grease. Crass is also derived from crassus.
Fat can be quite a crass term and foie gras a crass practice, so, whether you are keeping up on your New Year’s resolution to lose a few pounds or fighting against animal cruelty, perhaps you will carnival on this Carnival. Contrary to popular etymology, carnival is not from the Latin carnem valē or “farewell, flesh” but believed to be from carnem levāre, “to remove flesh,” referring to that Lenten sacrifice of meat. An intermediary Italian form, carnelevale, helps explain the the evolution and later confusion.
From Latin’s levāre (which could also mean to “raise,” among other meanings) we also get levitate, lever, levy, levee, the Levant, and levity. If and whether you are masked, costumed, or beaded on this Mardi Gras, I hope your Carnival festivities are full of levity–and I hope your feasts ultimately weigh you down.