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Several songs mention pink carnations.

"A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)" by Marty Robbins

A white sport coat and a pink carnation
I'm all dressed up for the dance
A white sport coat and a pink carnation
I'm all alone in romance

(...)

A white sport coat and a pink carnation
I'm in a blue blue mood

"American Pie" by Don McLean

I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

"Machine Gun Blues" by Social Distortion

I just left your town, took all your loot,
bought a pink carnation and a pinstripe suit,
a hopped-up V8 Ford and some two-tone shoes

Language of Flowers

Of course, flowers, and plants in general, are known to have symbolic meaning.
According to Wikipedia, carnations in general mean "fascination; distinction; love" while pink carnations mean "a woman's love, a mother's love".
Other sources on the Internet have pink carnations meaning gratitude.

What do the pink carnations mean in these songs?

Do they have the same meaning? Are any of the later songs inspired by an earlier song? Is there another reason for the pink carnations besides their possible symbolism?


I've asked this question over on the Music Fans Stack, but didn't get a satisfactory answer. So I'm giving it a shot over here.

  • @Skooba a couple of new answers were added since I wrote that, but in general: I can find articles on the language of flowers, on their meaning, and so on. What I'd like to see, is quotes by either the authors or by scholars. I don't expect much scholarly articles on a late-career Social Distortion song, but "American Pie" is an iconic song, about which articles will have been written. Marty Robbins' oeuvre less so, but still. – SQB Aug 28 '18 at 17:02
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The pink carnations in the songs have the same meaning they do in flower language.

That being, as you stated "a woman's love". In the context of the songs I would say it is a boutonniere (as carnations are one of the most common flowers used for this) given to the teenage boy by his date for the prom dance.


Marty Robbins song was release in 1957 and it seems his inspiration was off-the-cuff and so there is not likely any deeper meaning.

Robbins recalled writing the song in approximately twenty minutes while being transported in a standard automobile. He is said to have had the inspiration for the song while driving from a motel to a venue in Ohio where he was due to perform that evening. During the course of the journey, he passed a local high school, where its students were dressed ready for their prom

Marty Robbins interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969) - via Wikipedia


Don McLean is bit more complex, American Pie has been the focus of countless interpretations if only because it so chock full of references to other famous singers and pop culture icons. Given the times McLean was generally reminiscing about (the late 1950's and 1960's as "the day the music died is February 3, 1959) a reference to a popular song from 1957 seems appropriate. However McLean has said himself

You will find many "interpretations" of my lyrics but none of them by me. Isn't this fun?

So I suppose it up to us in the end?


Social Distortion's meaning might be a little bit different as it is referring to gangsters in 1920/30's America. Their style contained wearing suits with flower lapels. My speculation would be that they are also calling back to either Robbins or McLean with the specific "pink carnation" reference.

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