Grammar Girl #759. What Does ‛Mardi Gras’ Mean? “Drive to Work” Versus “Drive Home”

Hi, I’m Mignon Fogarty, and I’m giving
you a behind the scenes look at how I record the podcast. I didn’t like my set-up last
week, so we’re back at my desk this week. Thanks for watching.
Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide
to the English language—writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I have a segment
about the origin of “Mardi Gras” or “carnival,” another segment about why we “drive home”
but drive “TO work” (why that “to” is in there), and a familect story about medium
birds. Let’s get started.
It’s the end of February, which means Mardi Gras is almost here! When we think of Mardi
Gras, we picture parties, parades, and beads. But did you ever wonder what “Mardi Gras”
means? The first thing to know about Mardi Gras is
that it kicks off the Christian season of Lent. That’s the time when people prepare
for Easter, the holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Christ.
In Western churches, Lent begins six-and-a-half weeks before Easter on what’s known as Ash
Wednesday. On this solemn day, Christians are asked to reflect on their mortality and
their need to reconcile with god. They are also asked to begin fasting — and
to fast for the next 40 days. Nowadays, that might mean giving up wine or
candy. But in the early days of the church, fasting
was pretty hard core. You could only eat one meal a day, and that had to be in the evening.
You couldn’t eat eggs, butter, meat, or fish. In some places, you couldn’t have
oil, wine, or any other type of dairy. Now, knowing this period was coming up, people
naturally tried to use up any of these foods they had on hand before Lent began. Especially
because there wasn’t refrigeration back then.
And that leads us back to Mardi Gras. In French, “Mardi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday.”
In other words, it’s the day when people try to literally use up all the fats in their
house before Ash Wednesday begins. (If you’re a regular listener or reader,
you will remember that just a couple of weeks ago we talked about the origin of the names
of the days of the week, and in Roman times, Tuesday was “dies Martis,” with directly
led to the French and Spanish words we use for Tuesday today.)
Over time, this practical act turned into a celebration. You can see how. If you had
to get rid of all the ice cream, frozen pizzas, and potato chips in your house, you’d probably
throw a party too. And so the Mardi Gras carnival was born, the
feasts and festivities leading up to Lent. In fact, the word “carnival” itself reflects
this tradition. It comes from the Latin “carnem levāre”(or the Italian “carne levare.”
Both refer to the putting away or removal of flesh.
(By the way, you probably already know that the word “carne” means meat. Just think
of carne asada, that yummy staple of Mexican cuisine. “Asada” means “roasted” or
“grilled.” So carne asada means “grilled meat.”)
Anyway! A term that’s like “carnival,” but now obsolete, is “carneprivium.” The
“privium” part of that word comes from “privare,” meaning “to deprive.” Thus
“carneprivium” meant “to deprive of meat.”
“Carnival” and “Mardi Gras” entered English in the 1500s and 1600s, even though
Lent had been celebrated for centuries beforehand. Maybe it took that long for people to turn
a time of penitence into an excuse for partying. Whatever the reason, the celebration of Mardi
Gras — Fat Tuesday — continues to this day.
And the word “carnival” referred to the party before Lent long before it became something
with rides and games that might be part of a bigger circus. According to Etymonline,
that meaning didn’t come about until 1926. That segment was written by Samantha Enslen
who runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at or on Twitter
as @DragonflyEdit. Before we get to driving home but driving
TO work, I want to remind you about my Better Writing course from LinkedIn Learning. Recorded
before I got bangs, known as fringe in British English, this course has all my very best
tips to quickly improve your writing organized into short, effective videos. It’s free
if you have access to LinkedIn Premium, which a lot of people can get through work. And
many university and country libraries have free access to LinkedIn Learning through
like mine does. So check it out today and find out why people have bookmarked individual
videos from the course more than 8,000 times. A friend on Twitter asked if we have ever
done an episode on why you need the word “to” in phrases like “drive to work” but you
don’t need it in phrases like “drive home.” He wrote, “I don’t know why the ‘to’
is in there, but it sounds odd not to include it or include it as the case may be.” Well, when we say, “I’m driving to the house,”
“house” functions as a noun indicating a specific place. But when we say, “I’m
driving home,” “home” functions as an adverb of place, similar to the adverb “homeward.”
Compare “I’m driving to school” or “to the mall,” or “to my job” with “I’m
driving well,” I’m driving carefully,” “I’m driving north…forward…up…there,”
and so on. The first set of examples are all place nouns
(“school,” “the mall,” “my job”), while the second set are all adverbs of place
or direction (“carefully,” “north,” and so on). This is also true of other transport verbs
like “to go”: “I am going to school, “to the mall,” “to my job,” versus
“I am going quickly,” “I am going forward,” and “I am going soon.” With “to go,”
we can also attach an adverb of place instead of a noun: “I am going home,” “I am
going north,” “I am going there.” You’ll notice another little quirk related
to transport verbs when you compare American English and British English. We’ve talked
about this before, so you may remember that the British go to hospital, while Americans
go to “the” hospital; the British go to university while Americans go to the university
or a university. Both British and American speakers can either go to the school or just
go to school. The difference here is that you’re talking
about the general concept or idea of hospitals or schools, or about a specific hospital or
school. In other words, you might say, “I go to school” in a general sense, meaning
you haven’t graduated yet. Similarly, speakers of British English will say, “I need to
go to hospital” to indicate that they require medical attention — if they say, “I’m
going to the hospital,” that usually means they are visiting a specific hospital for
a reason other than getting treatment — for example, to visit someone or take care of
an administrative task. It’s kind of like the difference in American English between
going to prison and going to the prison. And to finish up, the British “I went to
university” is equivalent to an American saying “I went to college” — you aren’t
talking about a specific college, but rather the general concept of receiving a higher
education. That segment was written by Kate Whitcomb.
Kate is a linguist and teacher with degrees in psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience.
You can find her online at and on Twitter as @LaymansLinguist.
Finally, I have a familect story from Don. Hey, Grammar Girl. My name is Don. I’m in
Boston heading West on US 20, which is, by the way, the longest road in America, and
this is where it begins. Anyway, my daughter when she was young, used to sometimes come
in the kitchen breakfast time and say that she was a medium bird. Okay. What what’s a
medium bird? She said, “Well, I didn’t wake up early. So I’m not gonna get a worm because
I wasn’t an early bird. But I wasn’t late, like a late bird. I’m just regular times,
so I’m a medium bird, and we still use it. Thanks. Thanks, Don!
If you want to share your family dialect story, the story of a word your family and only your
family uses, leave a voicemail at 83-321-4-GIRL, like Don did, and you might hear it on the
show. I’m Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York
Times bestseller “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.” Subscribe
to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, YouTube, or wherever
you listen. And thanks to my producer Nathan Semes. And
that’s all. Thanks for listening. And thanks for watching. Bye.

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