“The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”

And if your lifelong passion is caprices? Or is capricious? Then you have found the eternal and ever-changing – you have found language, and its words.

Words have such caprices as may curl your hair or get your goat – they caper, caprine, and may strut out of place like a captive capercaillie on Capri. When you wonder where they come from, you may find it doesn’t matter but still makes you madder. When you try to season your sayings, you may yet find the words unseasonal, as in Mark Turbyfill’s 1924 poem “Weather Caprice”:

Little unuttered words
Hover about you,
Definite and understood—
Now suspended a moment,
Figured with frost and cold.
Audacious snow-flakes in spring!

Canadians know this well enough (though Turbyfill was from Chicago). But caprices can be good or bad, and sometimes both at the same time.

I must admit that the word caprice brings an unrelated, adventitious image to my mind, simply by dint of sound association: it makes me think of a particular cherry ice cream from my childhood, because that ice cream was called Cherries Capri, and why would I not associate Capri with caprice? Only later would I learn the meaning of the word caprice and learn of the island of Capri and the actual dessert named for it. Too late by then; some pairs of words are strangers on a train who lock eyes for a moment, never speak, get off at different stations, but never forget each other their whole lives.

But is Capri related to caprice? Perhaps. We’re not really sure because we’re not really sure where each of them comes from. Capri may be from Ancient Greek κάπρος kápros ‘wild boar’, or it may be from Latin capreæ ‘goats’, or it may even have been from the one and then shifted allegiance to the other. (And, while we’re with wildlife, the boreal grouse called capercaillie gets its name from Gaelic for ‘horse of the woods’, capull coille. Enough random animals yet? No, there will be more.)

And caprice? Well, when my friend Laurie Miller asked me whether capricious had to do with goats, I did a quick check on Wiktionary and said (somewhat to my surprise) it didn’t seem so… but now I sit here with a dozen browser tabs open and three reference books splayed on the floor (I put back the others already), and I find I cannot say for certain one way or another.

We know that caprice, which has been in English since at least the 1600s and came from French, which has had it for at least a century longer, came to French from Italian capriccio, of the same general meaning. Now, Capriccio is, for me, first of all the name of the first character I played in a mainstage production as a theatre student, a part I got (not the only one, and not the best one) because I was good with languages. The play was Sheridan’s The Critic, and my character was an Italian impresario named Capriccio Ritornello. But that’s neither here nor there (well, it was there, and it’s here now, but the point is that it’s not to the point). The thing is that if you look up capriccio on Wiktionary, it will tell you (citing L’Etimologico – Vocabolario della lingua italiana by Alberto Nocentini and Alessandro Parenti) that it comes from capo riccio, ‘curly head’, because “people believed that curly hair was a sign for a capricious and unruly character.” And if you’re still curious and you look up riccio, you find that it means not just ‘curly’ but, as a noun, ‘hedgehog’ and ‘urchin’ – indeed, riccio and urchin both come from Latin ericius, ‘hedgehog’.

But if you then leap over to the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find instead that capriccio is “apparently [from] capro goat, as if ‘the skip or frisk of a goat,’” and it suggests we compare capriole. And what is capriole? Well, it’s a caper – the dance kind (not the little green thing you eat with smoked salmon; that’s entirely unrelated, but just try and forget it now, eh?). And you might think that a dance leap would naturally connect to the leaping of a goat. After all, have you seen young goats when they’re having fun?

It’s a wonderful life. And the OED agrees that capriole is from capriola, ‘kid’ (the goat kind). But Wiktionary? It reckons that the dance kind of capriola is based on capra ‘trestle’ rather than capra ‘female goat’. I don’t know why; perhaps they’re just being capricious. I don’t wish to be captious (by the way, not related – it’s from Latin capere ‘take’, same as capture and others, including Italian capire ‘understand’ – capisci?).

But I digress. (I contain multitudes, OK? Or, to quote another part of Whitman’s poem, “Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea, I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all phases.”) The question is, how do we get from the curly-haired urchin (who, yes, is a kid, but) to the goat? Well, my Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has some thoughts: in its entry for caprice, its etymology is as follows: “F, fr. It capriccio caprice, shiver, fr. capo head (fr. L caput) + riccio hedgehog, fr. L ericius; basic meaning: head with hair standing on end, hence, horror, shivering, then (after It capra goat), whim—more at head, urchin).”

So, in their view, it started as the hedgehog, and then – perhaps startled by the spines – jumped over to the goat. If you’re wondering whether etymology can get your goat, the answer is quite evidently yes. But words are fickle; they can turn on a whim. As the 17th-century author Aphra Behn wrote in “Love’s Witness,”

Slight unpremeditated Words are borne
By every common Wind into the Air;
Carelessly utter’d, die as soon as born,
And in one instant give both Hope and Fear:
Breathing all Contraries with the same Wind
According to the Caprice of the Mind.

(And how could she rhyme wind with mind? Well… she could. But the wind has shifted, and the mind has changed. You see how it is?)

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