The word "karabela" does not have well-established etymology, and different versions are suggested. For example, Zygmunt Gloger suggests derivation from the name of the Iraqi city of Karbala, known for trade of this kind of sabres. It may also be a loanword from the Turkish compound word "kara-bela", which means "black-bane".
The sabre was modelled after the swords of the Turkish footmen formations of Janissaries and Spahis, which used it in close quarters. Much lighter than the hussar szabla, the karabela had an open hilt with the pommel modelled after an eagle's head. Such a grip allowed for easier handling of circular cuts while fighting on foot, and for swinging cuts from horseback.
Initially, the karabela sabres were used mostly for decoration or as a ceremonial weapon worn on special occasions. Popularized during the reign of King Jan III Sobieski, the sabre became one of the most popular Polish melee weapons. Though in theory the type could be subdivided into ornamental ceremonial type and a simple battle weapon, in reality both more expensive and the cheaper designs were often used in combat. Most of the Polish nobility (szlachta) could afford only one expensive karabela and, in case of need, simply replaced the ebony or ivory-made scabbard with a leather-made one, and removed some of the precious stones from the hilt in order to convert it into a fully reliable weapon.