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Floating Along on Mardi Gras

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A pontoon wagon, progenitor of the parade float.

A week from today is Mardi Gras — “fat Tuesday,” on the eve of 40 lean days of Lent. And just in time comes Peter Reitan’s discovery of the origin of the name for a featured item in Mardi Gras parades, a name that we have adopted for all our parades: float.

Reitan’s investigation occupies all 17 pages of the January 2016 issue of Comments on Etymology, Gerald Cohen’s self-published journal focusing on American vocabulary. As usual for Comments, citations are plentiful and persuasive.

For the past two centuries, the New Orleans Mardi Gras has featured a parade. Reitan provides an account from the New Orleans Daily Crescent of February 13, 1861, just a few months before the Civil War began:

“Yesterday being a bright and beautiful day, the Mardi-gras spirit of merriment and deviltry was effulgent all over the city — from the river to the swamp, from the barracks to the stock landing.

“The little boys and girls reveled as usual in cheap masks and fancy costumes, and pelted each other and the loafers with flour, according to the usual custom. The Cyprians [prostitutes] and their masculine rowdy companions took full advantage of the license accorded them on this one day of the three hundred and sixty-five, and whilst amusing the town by their outlandish and grotesque costumes and processions and antics doubtless enjoyed themselves according to their fancies — nobody envying them their employment.

“There were many laughable groups in wagons — minstrels, clowns, harlequins, horrible beasts, devils and so on, and some extraordinary procession on foot. … ”

Wagons, not floats. So where do we, and New Orleans, get the name floats?

Simple enough, Reitan explains. “Cotton floats” were used as parade wagons: “long, narrow flat-bed wagons with front wheels that were significantly smaller than the rear wheels; precisely the type of wagon suitable for carrying a parade float.”

Evidently these flatbed wagons, or wagons just like them, carried pontoons, or “floats,” for the construction of pontoon bridges during the Civil War.  During the war, these wagons were known as “pontoon wagons” or “float wagons” – later simply “floats” or “cotton floats.”  So all it took for float to become the standard name for a parade wagon was to drop the “cotton.”

And so, finally, in 1872 there were floats (without reference to cotton) at the Mardi Gras parade: “the Third Division, comprising all maskers in vans, floats, milk-carts and other public vehicles, will form on Camp street, the right resting on Canal street.” So said the New Orleans Republican of February 11 that year. Stay afloat for Mardi Gras!

 

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