The video depicts a mass shooting in a church by a lone assassin who looks very much like the grinning 45th president of the United States. It is violent, gruesome, tasteless, and obviously faked, but the adjective the New York Times editors chose for the headline above Monday’s story was none of those words. It was, instead, macabre, a word with a long, lurid, and murky history.
The organizer of the American Priority event at which the video was screened said the video was part of a “meme exhibit.”
Macabre entered English from French in the 1400s, the century of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. Its first appearance was in an allegory, Danse Macabre, about the inevitability of death. In a danse macabre, “skeletons escort living humans to their graves in a lively waltz,” as a 2017 Atlas Obscura article puts it. “Kings, knights, and commoners alike join in, conveying that regardless of status, wealth, or accomplishments in life, death comes for everyone.”
The Middle French word was Macabré, which the OED tells us is “of uncertain origin.” Some lexicographers have postulated a Jewish source. Here’s how the Online Etymology Dictionary explains it:
John Lydgate (c. 1370–c. 1451), the monk/poet who first translated it into English, seems to have regarded it as the name of the French author, and perhaps it was a French surname Macabré. Or perhaps it is from Medieval Latin (Chorea) Machabæorum, literally "dance of the Maccabees" (leaders of the Jewish revolt against Syro-Hellenes; see Maccabees). If so, the association with the dance of death (a favorite subject of literature and art in the Middle Ages) would be from vivid descriptions of the martyrdom of the Maccabees in the Apocryphal books.
The Maccabean revolt in 166 BCE is commemorated in the eight-day festival of Chanukah, which begins this year at sundown on December 22.
Depictions of the Danse Macabre continued to be popular art subjects long after the Middle Ages. This 1860 painting, The Dance of Death, is by James Tissot.
The original macabre was a proper noun. In the 1880s it began to be used as an adjective meaning “grim, horrific, repulsive”—the sense in which the New York Times used it. Around 1920 it was seen once again as a noun, this time meaning “a macabre happening.” (The OED’s 1948 citation is “The unfortunate macabre of the cab-journey,” which unfortunately leaves out the gory details.)
You can pronounce macabre with three syllables, as the Brits do (meh-CAH-breh) or with two, as Americans generally prefer (meh-CAHB). I have found no evidence at all that Charles Dickens intended the name of Wilkins Micawber, the character in David Copperfield, to evoke death or dancing. On the contrary, “Micawber” has become a synonym for “poor but optimistic.” (The character’s oft-expressed affirmation is “Something will turn up.”)
Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns (1874). The twelve notes struck by the harpist at the beginning of the piece represent the twelve strokes of midnight on Halloween, when Death is supposed to appear.