The Story Behind Capricious

What other word in our wonderfully wacky language could combine hedgehogs, goats – and supermodels? Before you accuse me of being capricious in my choice of words, please read on.
The dictionary definition of caprice is a sudden and unaccountable change of mood or behaviour, seemingly on a whim.

Many of us will have worked for a capricious boss noted for some odd decisions (one or two newspaper and magazine chiefs I encountered during my publishing career loom large in the memory) or have perhaps lived with a capricious partner. Sports coaches are often described as capricious in their team selections or tactics. The enigmatic and brooding Portuguese soccer coach Jose Mourinho or Italy’s Claudio Ranieri – the self-proclaimed ‘Tinkerman’ – are two striking examples.

Speaking of Italy, we have the Italians of the Renaissance to thank for the word caprice. In the 16th century, on a whim perhaps, they took the word capo (head) and added it to riccio (hedgehog) to describe someone who has just had a shock or a dreadful fright; their hair would stand up on end, looking like the spines of a hedgehog.

Gradually, the word evolved to become a bit less startling. The Italian word for a goat is capra (think of the goat in the star sign Capricorn) and people adopted the word to illustrate the frisky behaviour displayed by young goats – and then appended it to similar goings on concerning other animals and humans.

There’s another source. The word caper comes from the same root; this has come to describe questionable, risqué behaviour, such as crimes, with well-planned bank heists or robberies being laughed off as capers. Think of Michael Caine’s Swinging Sixties gold bullion thieves running amok in Mini cars in Turin during the film The Italian Job. There is a sudden change of mood when their bus ends up hanging over the edge of an Alpine cliff. “Hold on a minute. I’ve got an idea. . .” says Caine. Capriciously.

What about this supermodel then, I hear you ask? She is none other than the American Caprice Bourret. Born in 1971, she had a stellar catwalk career before becoming a businesswoman based in London, running a lingerie empire.

This is an excerpt from My Word! by Peter Sargent, due to be published on October 1, 2020.