As headlines today scream ‘Prince Harry cavorts naked in Vegas party photos’, we asked chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary John Simpson for an insight into the disputed origins of the word ‘cavort’.
“This is something that has had lexicographers scratching their heads over the years. Not why people cavort about, but where the word ‘cavort’ comes from.
“Here’s our best guess. Once upon a time in the West (of America), horses used to ‘curvet’ – leap or prance around friskily. Well, they’d been doing that for centuries in Britain too. But we first come across ‘cavort’ (at first ‘cauvaut’ and ‘cavault’, perhaps as an alteration of ‘curvet’) in late eighteenth-century America:
The Hon. J–e ‘cauvauted’, don’t laugh at the expression, it suits the idea I meant to convey. (1794)
“We think ‘cavort’ probably moved from horses prancing about to people horsing around in a roughly similar way at that time. Looking around the language, you can see the same sort of sense development happening with ‘capering about’. This could be applied to horses prancing or leaping friskily, or to people dancing or cavorting wildly around.”
Examples of cavorting, now and through history
To illustrate the usage of ‘cavort’ through the centuries, here’s a snapshot of quotations used in the Oxford English Dictionary:
The Oxford English Corpus, our bank of twenty-first century English, includes sentences such as:
- Are you stuck away in your booth, while kids half your age cavort the night away?
- ‘Soccer’ is a sport where grown men can cavort and prance.
- When the dolphins appear the passengers hang onto buoy lines and squeal with delight as the mammals leap and cavort nearby.
- He used to cavort with her in stairwells and find inventive ways to eat cling peaches.
- In family photos from the period my sister and her friends cavort in penny loafers for the camera.