capricious

  You might say the debate about the origin of capricious is a battle between goat-lovers and hedgehog advocates. Everyone pretty much agrees that it came into English via French from the Italian word capriccio (whim). But where did the Italians get it? Some say from capra or caper, both meaning “goat “in Latin. Capricious is also similar to the Latin and Italian words for “head” (caput and capo). And voila!—someone who’s capricious is someone goat-headed, who, like a goat, frisks around and jumps from thing to thing on a whim. Right?

Nonsense! thunder the hedgehog etymologists. They agree with the “capr-” (head) part of the etymology, but add that you’ve got to look at the “riccio” part as well—which means “hedgehog” in in Italian. One problem: hedgehogs are placid, not capricious.

Here’s where a little extra etymology comes in handy. “Capriccio” in Italian originally didn’t mean capricious; it was a noun meaning “shiver or shudder” in which one’s hair stands on end, much like the spines of a hedgehog stand up when frightened. Gradually, the meaning shifted in Italian to mean “a whim,” and after this it came into English. 

This new meaning made the probably erroneous goat idea of its origins popular. William Shakespeare actually has a pro-goat origin pun with capricious in his play As You Like It (3.3.8-9.), where he says “as the most capricious Poet honest Ovid was among the Gothes [goats].”

Punning aside, capricious is not necessarily a word to be taken lightly. It has a stern meaning in American law, where the term “arbitrary and capricious” is a formal legal ruling by an appellate court invalidating a previous decision. As defined by the courts “A rule is arbitrary if it is not supported by logic or the necessary facts; a rule is capricious if it is adopted without thought or reason or is irrational.” Which is not a capricious definition.

 

capricious (adj.): changing unpredictably and suddenly without reason

 

from Awkword Moments