The other day a lurking follower laughingly commented on the capricious nature of the topics for Wordmonger posts. It would be poetic if I were to claim that upon hearing this, my hair stood on end, but I have little hair left to engage in such shenanigans, and the capricious shoe fits, so I’m perfectly happy to wear it.
Capricious is one of those wonderfully rich words of questionable heritage. More traditional sources mention the flighty, capering nature of goats, and cite the Latin word capriolus, or wild goat as the grandmother of capricious. In the late 1500s and 1600s capricious and its relatives meant prank or trick. It can be argued that the goat is a tricky critter, & that goat-like satyrs of myth were most decidedly pranksters. My two most trusted sources, Etymonline, and The Oxford English Dictionary definitely connect capricious with those flighty, tricky, pranking goats.
Less traditional sources disagree. The folks at Wordinfo, and Anu Garg’s A Word a Day (a fascinating daily glance into etymology), appear to have used a bit more scrutiny. These sources explain that the similarity of capro, or goat, to the word capricious shifted the meaning toward flighty, pranking, goatlike behavior, and away from its original meaning. These sources claim capricious was actually constructed from the word parts, capo-, head, & riccio, hedgehog. That’s right; the word in question may have initially meant hedgehog-head. In the early 1500s, capricious started out meaning afraid, or hair-standing-on-end, like the spines of the hedgehog. After years, the similar term capro- rubbed off enough to shove the meaning of the word toward goatliness (or, goat allies might claim, toward perceived goatliness).
Pranking, tricky goats or hair-on-end hedgehogs? Which story carries the ring of truth? Please weigh in with your comments.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, etymonline.com, wordinfo.info, wordsmith.org, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.