Monday, January 27, 2014


David from Traverse City asked about the word caper. Specifically, he wondered about the connection between the caper that you eat and the caper that involves jumping or skipping about. The short answer is that there is no connection between them.

The capers that we eat—the pea-shaped green food items—are actually flower buds plucked from a particular kind of bush. They are dried and brined, then packed in the glass jars that we find on supermarket shelves. The word came from a Latin word that meant a bush.

The motion caper refers to a frolicsome leap, and it is sometimes used to describe a dance step. (“To cut a caper” is connected.) It is an abbreviation of the word capriole. In turn, that came from a Latin word that meant a goat, which is wont to frisk, especially when young.

Another caper, now obsolete, meant a pirate. It evolved from a Frisian verb that meant to take away, steal, rob, and plunder.

A fourth caper came from the Gaelic language. It meant a piece of oatcake and butter topped by a slice of cheese.

For a brief time in the 19th century, caper was a slang term that referred to chorister boys and ballet girls. And in the early 20th century, caper was used as a shortened form of capercailye, a wood grouse.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

Nook edition

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