Happy Mardi Gras, Language Nerd!
Why do the parade “krewes” spell “crew” with a k?
Happy Mardi Gras to you too! The word “krewe” is an American Mardi Gras original. Mobile, Alabama, had Carnival celebrations waaaaay back in 1711, when the “Boeuf Gras Society” tramped up and down Dauphin Street with a paper-mache ox head (the very definition of good times). After about a century people got over the ox head, and the more organized Cowbellion de Rakin Society was formed in 1830. This group came up with the all-important “throwing things at bystanders” concept. Some twenty years later, a half-dozen Mobilians, including one Cowbellion member, moved to New Orleans and were dismayed by the terribly weaksauce Mardi Gras festivities. Their heroic response was to organize the society that redefined New Orleans Carnival: Ye Mistick Krewe of Comus.
As you can see from the other goofy spellings (we’ve discussed “ye” previously), the “krewe” spelling was a joke. In linguistics, it’s what’s called a “stunt word,” a word made up to get attention. This is a subset of “nonce words,” words made up to serve a particular need, often a joking need. People make up nonce words all the time, and most of them pass quickly and quietly out of memory.
A few, however, stick around, because a lot of people either find the word useful or find the joke funny. “Krewe” became one of these lucky few. It filled a specific need in the Carnival-prone cities of the Gulf Coast and came to be defined as “a group of people who put on masks and organize parades.” Later Mardi Gras societies ignored Comus’ spelling of “mistick,” but kept using “krewe,” as in the Mystic Krewe of Myrthe (1887), the Krewe of Mohomet (1892), the Krewe of Don Q (1985), and the Krewe of Goats (1996). When a nonce word spreads and strengthens like this, it is soon no longer a nonce word. It becomes a neologism, which just means “new word.” Once people start writing it down, dictionary editors will start paying attention, too. “Krewe” is recognized in Merriam-Webster and in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but not yet in the Oxford Dictionaries (it’s too all-American, perhaps).* Many neologisms die out pretty quickly, just like nonce words, but some make it to the big time. If a neologism starts to be used automatically (without anybody noticing what a neat, funny little thing it is), then it has become a word, just another word. This is true of “krewe,” at least across the Gulf Coast, where we use it without anyone thinking twice.
This kind of neologism, where a person or group just makes up a word (or a variant spelling) and it sticks, is one of the least common ways for a word to enter the language. Krewe really beat the odds. If only there were some way to celebrate…
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*Though the Oxford Dictionaries do have this neat little info-graphic about how they select words to add to dictionaries. Perhaps The Secret World of Lexicographers should be a future topic.
The various dictionaries I linked to above. The Mardi Gras information was found at the websites of the Museum of Mobile and the Mobile Carnival Museum. The neologism bits and pieces were assembled from Iccharam Attarde’s Encyclopedic Graded Grammar Volume 2 and my beloved copy of David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.
I also checked out the Wikipedia article for Ye Mistick Krewe of Comus, which had this to share: as the classiest society in New Orleans, the Krewe gets to go last on Fat Tuesday and wrap up the Carnival season (the role traditionally played in Mobile by the Order of Myths). When the Mistick Krewe took off parading for a few years in the late 1800s, another society, the rival Krewe of Proteus, took their prime parading spot. When the Mistick Krewe returned and demanded their spot back, the Proteans refused, and both groups paraded at the same time, coming head-to-head in a huge game of Mardi Gras chicken. The two stood for a while glaring and shaking fists at each other, but eventually the Krewe of Proteus backed down, and the Mistick Krewe finished their parade.