I’m just back from my family trip to Paris and I finally managed to snap a carousel so I can explore its word history. Choose your unicorn, pay for your ticket and off we go.
The use of the word carousel to indicate a slowly rotating merry-go-round for children featuring horses, carriages, and tiny trains is relatively recent innovation, 1895 to be precise. Even more recent is the luggage carousel in the airport.
The word itself goes back further and still involves horses. The first stop on this ride is the Romans. The Latin word carrus means a two-wheeled wagon and as you can imagine has links to the modern word car. From carrus you get the Italian word carro which means chariot (two-wheeled again). After that it’s a hop to carusiello in Italian for a tilting match which slid into French as carrousel (yes, two Rs).
By the 1640s English had acquired the carousel from French as a playful tournament of knights in chariots or on horseback. The interesting thing being the retention of two wheeled chariots right from Roman times up to the 1600s in England. Chariots aren’t used much in warfare these days and I’ve struggled to imagine how knights could use them but according to a letter in 1673 such a carousel would provide –
“instruction to all such ingenious young gentlemen as desire to learne the art of perfect horsemanshipp.” [sic]
I was intrigued as to what a knight’s carousel would have looked like. The Smithsonian Magazine claims it came from a 12th century training game played by Arabian and Turkish warriors throwing a clay ball between them which was filled with perfume. A fumbled catch meant the knight reeked until he could wash. This doesn’t seem to include chariots however.
There is the idea of a melée in knights’ tournaments where many knights fought at the same time and the last one standing won the day, I imagine a carousel could work the same way except you fought in a circle that decreased in size until it was a duel. If the training was chariot or horse-based it might have been more like our images from the iconic movie “Ben Hur”, but that would be a tricky, and high-risk game which could injure the extremely valuable war-horses of the day. They cost so much that it would be like allowing a learner driver get behind the wheel of your Bugatti super car for a rally drive.
My own theory is that the carousel might have been like the quintain. This simple device, used to train knights and squires in castle courtyards and town squares, consisted of an upright post with swiveling arms spread wide. One arm ended in a shield which the rider targeted, the other ended in a filled sack. Hit the shield just right and the quintain would spin away from you allowing you to ride on. Hit it wrong and the sack would swing round and swipe you from your steed. It is likely that such devices were setup at town fairs. Couldn’t a smaller version for wannabe squires have gradually led to a rotating horse-riding device for children at such fairs?
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,