Thursday, December 4, 2014

Don't Bogart My Capo

Don’t Bogart My Capo

Some time ago I played in an old time string band. Whenever a particular musical acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) showed up at our rehearsals or shows, our banjo/guitar/harmonica/mandolin player’s capo would disappear. Thus, this post’s title.

For those of you who don’t know the word, a capo is a device used primarily by guitarists. It temporarily shortens the length of the strings, which changes the key without changing the fingerings.

Capo came to English in 1946 from Italian & Latin and means head stop. A capo stops the vibration of the strings early, functionally moving the head of the instrument closer to the instrument’s body.

The word capo can also refer to the head of a mafia family. This meaning entered English a few years later in 1952.

Capo has a couple of cousins with stories to tell.

Caprice means a sudden change of mind or whim, though it originally meant a shivering. It came to English in the 1660s from French. Though some believe its origins lie in the word capro, or goat, most evidence suggests that caprice comes from the Italian term capo riccio, meaning frizzled head, which suggests that one’s caprices can surprise one to the point that they curl the hair on one’s head.

The Italian term capo muffare meant to muffle the head. In time, this term made its way to Paris, where it became the French slang word camuffare, to disguise. According to a 1917 Popular Science Monthly article, the word camouflage was brought into English that same year by journalists to more efficiently describe military efforts to hide troops & artillery. In previous years, “Sometimes a whole paragraph was required to explain this military practice,” but the introduction to English of the word camouflage ended all that.

Just think of the trees we could save if all bureaucracies could engage in this one simple practice.

So, good readers, do your caprices curl the hair on your head? Do you have any suggestions of new words to take the place of complex concepts?

Big thanks to this week’s sources:, Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.


  1. I always wondered why a capo was called that. Thanks Wordmonger! I still want to believe capricious has to do with goats. Baby goats sure are capricious anyway. But I had no idea camouflage was related to the Latin word for head. That's an odd meandering of etymology. .

  2. Ahoy Anne - It's good to know you're feeling good enough to be digitally out & about. I'm with you, the goat-capricious etymology is more fun, but apparently Those Who Know prefer the fuzzy head etymology.

  3. I didn't know caprice meant a change of mind. I've been capricing all of my life and had no idea! So interesting about camouflage. I'll have to think about your idea of a new word for complex concepts. Good idea, too early in the morning for my brain!

  4. Thanks for putting up with my wordaholoic nature early in the morning, Christine.