“Were you cavorting covertly with that cavalier in a cravat in his Corvette convertible?”
“No? I can verify it! You were consorting with him!”
“Indeed I was. But there was nothing covert about the cavorting. I was even crowing a little afterwards.”
Cavort. Synonyms? Frolic, romp, besport oneself. But somehow it has an extra air, no doubt in part because of its echoes of consort, a word with which it has been occasionally confounded (see this William Safire column from 2002 – but wait until you’ve finished reading this word tasting). Its basic, older sense, as Merriam-Webster puts it, is “to jump or move around in a lively manner,” but it has the additional sense “to spend time in an enjoyable and often wild or improper way” (they do make it sound fun, don’t they?). The second definition you get if you just plain Google cavort is “apply oneself enthusiastically to sexual or disreputable pursuits.”
If you look in The New York Times you find recent examples of things that cavort including mummers, clowns, carousel horses, celebrities, and lovers – and baked goods (one must assume they are not as tired and overdone as the newspaper-food-writing-ese that fills the article). What we get the sense of is that cavorting is a kind of vortex of fun, one that may swirl you down into it and yet without any protest from you. It is a vibrant, vivacious, plunging V-neck kind of fun; it is capering, but it is also a caper, an escapade.
Where do we get this word? Our language has cavorted so much, it is unclear. But the evidence is that it is converted from cavault, which in turn is contorted from curvet. What is curvet? A kind of leap of a horse, in which the front legs are extended in parallel, and the rear legs spring off the ground before the front legs touch it. It comes from Italian corvetta, which comes from Latin curvus ‘bent’.
Ah! Corvetta! As in the car, then, right? While I admit that a Corvette could be a good car for (figuratively) cavorting, it is a coincidence that it sounds so much the same. The car is named after the smallest kind of naval boat to merit a captain (rather than some lower-ranking commander), and the boat – which has been a naval class since the age of sail – got its name from French, which formed it from Dutch corf, a name for a kind of boat; the Dutch took the word from Latin corbis ‘basket’. Which is not to say that the driver of a Corvette is a basket case.
Nor, for that matter, that he or she is doing a little crowing (though it’s not impossible). Latin for ‘crow’ is corvus, and Italian is corvo, so a little crow could be corvetto (in fact, Corvetto is a family name – there’s a station in the Milan Metro going by that name too, not to be confused with Cavour, a station on the Rome Metro).
And, as I imagine you can guess, covert and cravat also have no common origin with cavort (or each other). But they’re there for the endless cavorting of English vocabulary. It’s part of what makes us crave it.