Saturday, 15 March 2014

Cavort - Horsing About

Man and woman holding hands and jumping with the sun behind them
Frolicking? Capering? Gamboling? Or just down and dirty cavorting? You decide.
(photo by Steven Worster)


Verb intransitive. Colloquial (originally US). Late 18th century.
[Perhaps alteration of CURVET noun.]

Prance, caper about.


Noun & verb. Late 16th century.
[Italian corvetta diminutive of corva, early form of curva curve, from Latin curva feminine of curvus bent, curved.]

A noun A horse's leaping or frisking motion; specifically = COURBETTE. L16

B verb intrans. Inflected -t(t)-. (Of a horse or rider) perform a curvet; generally leap (about), frisk. L16


Noun. Mid-17th century.
[French from Italian corvetta.]

A leap in haute école in which a trained horse rears up and jumps
forward on the hind legs without the forelegs touching the ground.

When I was little, I read about a king that reprimanded his son for "cavorting" with a peasant girl. I asked my father what cavort means, and he gave a definition very similar to that of the OED: "Well ... uh ... it's kind of ... to play around with ... to jump about ...yes, that'll do." Now, I'm not one to needlessly question the wisdom of the OED or my father but, while a certain level of "jumping about" may have been involved, I do suspect there was a little more to this prince's cavortings than either lets on here. And other dictionaries agree.

Oxford Dictionaries, for example, gives an alternative definition of "to engage enthusiastically in sexual or disreputable pursuits," and Merriam-Webster offers "to spend time in an enjoyable and often wild and improper way". It is exactly this sense, I do believe, that my age-inappropriate history book was using when describing the antics of this scallywag prince, a sense that neither my father nor (it seems) the OED are that keen on explaining.

I've included cavort's related word curvet and courbette as they do paint a lovely picture of how this word likely came to be - that of a lively horse leaping and frolicking about its paddock. And, yes, if you'd like some variety, there are a number of synonyms for cavort, such as romp, jig, gambol, prance, rollick, frolic and lark. What's so wonderful about cavort, however, and what stands it separate from the rest, is that there is a definite illicit flavour to it - cavorting is just a little bit naughty, a little bit risqué, and a little bit vexing to kingly fathers.

What does the word cavort bring to your mind?

As I can't remember, do you have any idea who this beleaguered king might have been?

Do please leave your most capering comments in the box below.


  1. What could be a direputable pursuit that one could engage enthusiastically in?

    In Greek,too, the verb that translates as "jump" is slang for "have sex". Interesting.

    1. Really Evi?

      Disreputable pursuits that one could engage enthusiastically in - gambling, drinking, drugs, throwing eggs at passing cars, trolling, deliberately using obscure or made-up words to see who'll say they don't understand what you just said ...

      The list is positively distrapheneous, surely?

    2. Also trespassing. My cousins and I used to hop onto a golf course for flashlight tag and general rambunctious behavior every chance we got, cavorting around to our hearts' content.

      Also: hip hop dance-offs.

    3. Trespassing, yes! And scrumping! Scrumping is definitely something disreputable that one can do with enthusiasm!

      Ah ... my childhood ...

      *cue harp glissando*

    4. I see... I'm usually the Cassandra in all these scenarios: "Stop it or you'll be in trouble". I guess that's why nothing sprang to mind. What is distrapheneous? (Stop it with the fancy words or you'll be in trouble)

  2. Well, I'm feeling old now!
    I have never associated cavorting with anything other than frolicking, etc.
    At times, it also implied being a bit on the wild side, or getting into mischief, but never anything sexual.

    Perhaps the king wasn't happy with his son cavorting with the peasant girl simply because she was a peasant?

    1. This is very interesting Jingles.

      For me, growing up in the 80s, 'cavort' always implied some kind of illicit association, such as 'cavorting with the enemy', 'cavorting with bad types', etc. And if it was between a girl and a boy, or a man and woman, it wasn't necessarily out-and-out sexual, but it implied a kind of illicit, flirtatious gallivanting about together, getting into mischief and (probably) doing naughty things.

      When I came to do this word, I was so surprised to see dictionaries carrying example sentences about children capering and cavorting in the park, for instance, as that all sounded so uncharacteristically innocent.

      It does indeed seem that its meaning has changed over time.

  3. Maybe James Bond skewed you Ed. Covert cavorting?