Thursday, March 22, 2012

Flighty Goats & Fearful Hedgehogs

Flighty Goats & Fearful Hedgehogs

The other day a lurking follower laughingly commented on the capricious nature of the topics for Wordmonger posts. It would be poetic if I were to claim that upon hearing this, my hair stood on end, but I have little hair left to engage in such shenanigans, and the capricious shoe fits, so I’m perfectly happy to wear it.

Capricious is one of those wonderfully rich words of questionable heritage. More traditional sources mention the flighty, capering nature of goats, and cite the Latin word capriolus, or wild goat as the grandmother of capricious. In the late 1500s and 1600s capricious and its relatives meant prank or trick. It can be argued that the goat is a tricky critter, & that goat-like satyrs of myth were most decidedly pranksters. My two most trusted sources, Etymonline, and The Oxford English Dictionary definitely connect capricious with those flighty, tricky, pranking goats.

Less traditional sources disagree. The folks at Wordinfo, and Anu Garg’s A Word a Day (a fascinating daily glance into etymology), appear to have used a bit more scrutiny. These sources explain that the similarity of capro, or goat, to the word capricious shifted the meaning toward flighty, pranking, goatlike behavior, and away from its original meaning. These sources claim capricious was actually constructed from the word parts, capo-, head, & riccio, hedgehog. That’s right; the word in question may have initially meant hedgehog-head. In the early 1500s, capricious started out meaning afraid, or hair-standing-on-end, like the spines of the hedgehog. After years the similar term capro- rubbed off enough to shove the meaning of the word toward goatliness (or, goat allies might claim, toward perceived goatliness).

Pranking, tricky goats or hair-on-end hedgehogs? Which story carries the ring of truth? Please weigh in with your comments.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,,, & the OED.


  1. I somehow missed last weeks Word Monger, so I'll have to read that. As an owner of three flighty, tricky, prankster goats, I couldn't agree more with the first thoughts of the word capricious.

    Example: Lily goat, after giving me wonderful milk, grabs the latch with her mouth so she can get back into her pen all by herself. Anise, when she has escaped from the pen, will rear up on her hind hooves and shake her head at me in a "catch me if you can" naughty way. Pepper, our doeling, runs, springing into the air, and twirling. Is this where ballerina's got their moves?

    Well, you may think I am smitten with my goats and you would be correct!

    Great post, Charlie!

  2. Having met a number of baby goats in my travels, I'm inclined to believe the goat derivation of the word. Goats are so playful and silly.

    I have a subject I'd love to have the Wordmonger investigate. I was discussing it with my Brit hairdresser yesterday. In England, they call bangs "fringe"--which makes a lot more sense than "bangs". We wondered how the word for loud noise came to mean hair that frames your face. Love to have your take on that sometime.

  3. Hey Anne & Jean Ann,
    So, the goats are in the lead 2-0.
    I'll definitely look into bangs.

  4. I have never known any goats personally but then...neither have I ever personally known a hedgehog. But, I nonetheless will vote for the lowly hedgehog just because no one else did. My hair stands on end!

  5. Can I vote twice?