meaning and origin of ‘to cut a caper’

La Trénis, Contredanse - Le Bon Genre - 1931 reprint

plate 19: La Trénis, Contredanse
source: / Bibliothèque Nationale de France

from the 1931 reprint of the caricatures published under the title of Le Bon Genre (1827 edition), including Observations sur les modes et les usages de Paris; the following comment about La Trénis accompanies this plate:

(Année 1805.) Cette danse porte le nom de celui qui en est l’inventeur. Triste célébrité ! la manie des pirouettes a détraqué sa tête ; il est mort à Charenton.
(Year 1805.) This dance bears the name of its inventor. Sad fame! the mania for pirouettes has unhinged him; he died at Charenton [a lunatic asylum].





to cut a caper: to make a playful skipping movement




The word caper, which as a noun denotes a frolicsome leap, and as a verb means to dance or leap in a frolicsome manner, is first recorded in A quip for an vpstart courtier: or, A quaint dispute between veluet breeches and cloth-breeches Wherein is plainely set downe the disorders in all estates and trades (London, 1592), by the English writer and playwright Robert Greene (1558-92):

You are a leader into all misrule, you instruct Gentlemen to order their féete, when you driue thē to misorder their manners, you are a bad fellow that stand vpon your tricks and capers, till you make young Gentlemen caper without their landes.

The noun caper is probably an abbreviation¹ of capriole², itself borrowed from French in the late 16th century. The following definitions are from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London, 1611), by Randle Cotgrave:

Cabriole. as Capriole.
Cabriolé: m. ée: f. Capered.
Capriole: f. A caper in dauncing; also, the Capriole, sault, or Goats leape (done by a horse.)

¹ Similarly, cab is an abbreviation of cabriolet, itself borrowed from French in the mid-18th century; cabriolet is from the French verb cabrioler, from the bounding motion of the carriage.
² In French, capriole is obsolete: the word is now cabriole, which was borrowed into English in the early 19th century.

The obsolete French noun capriole and verb caprioler (now cabrioler) are from the Italian noun capriola and verb capriolare, which were thus defined by the English lexicographer of Italian descent John Florio (circa 1553-1625) in A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (London, 1598):

Caprióla, a caper or loftie trick in dācing. A faune [= fawn], a kid, a calue of a hinde, a yoong hinde, a capriole, a sault or goates leape that cunning riders teach their horses.
Capriolare, to caper in dancing.

The literal meaning of Italian capriola, feminine of capriolo, roebuck, is female roe deer. These words are from Latin capreolus/capreola, wild goat, from caper/capr-, goat, capra, she-goat.

In Twelfe Night, Or what you will (around 1601), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes Sir Toby puns on the homonymy of caper, frolicsome leap, and caper, small green bud used to flavour food, in this case mutton:

(Folio 1, 1623)
– Sir Andrew: I delight in Maskes and Re-
uels sometimes altogether.
– Sir Toby: Art thou good at these kicke-chawses Knight?
– Sir Andrew: As any man in Illyria, whatsoeuer he be, vnder
the degree of my betters, & yet I will not compare with
an old man.
– Sir Toby: What is thy excellence in a galliard, knight?
– Sir Andrew: Faith, I can cut a caper.
– Sir Toby: And I can cut the Mutton too’t [= to it].
– Sir Andrew: And I thinke I haue the backe-tricke, simply as
strong as any man in Illyria.
– Sir Toby: Wherefore are these things hid? Wherefore haue
these gifts a Curtaine before ’em³? Are they like to take
dust, like mistris Mals picture? Why dost thou not goe
to Church in a Galliard, and come home in a Carranto?
My verie walke should be a Iigge [= a jig]: I would not so much
as make water but in a Sinke-a-pace: What dooest thou
meane? Is it a world to hide vertues in? I did thinke by
the excellent constitution of thy legge, it was form’d vn-
der the starre of a Galliard.
– Sir Andrew: I, ’tis strong, and it does indifferent well in a
dam’d colour’d stocke. Shall we sit about some Reuels?
– Sir Toby: What shall we do else: were we not borne vnder
– Sir Andrew: Taurus? That sides and heart.
– Sir Toby: No sir, it is leggs and thighes: let me see thee ca-
per. Ha, higher: ha, ha, excellent.

³ Curtains were frequently hung before pictures of any value.
This refers to Mary Frith (circa 1584-1659), known as Mall (= Moll) Cutpurse, thief, receiver of stolen goods, procuress, etc.
coranto: a kind of dance; the same as courante
sink-a-pace: this alteration of cinquepace, denoting a kind of lively dance, after sink is induced by to make water, to urinate.

The use of the noun caper has been extended to denote an activity in many shades of sense: a wild, foolish action or prank, a high-spirited escapade, an illicit act or plan, etc. The following is from The Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, Kansas) of 26th March 1881:

About two weeks ago, one J. O. Patterson, Hannibal train dispatcher at Cameron, ran away with the wife of Homer Fisher, a respectable gentleman temporarily absent in Colorado, and who took with her their little girl. Mr. Fisher promptly gave chase, and yesterday he returned to Cameron with the child, but it is not known what disposition he made of the man and woman who so grievously wronged him. There is a rumor, however, that he came upon them in a little town near Cincinnati, and that Patterson escaped. Fisher said nothing to his wife except to ask her to get the child ready to return home with him, which she reluctantly did. He then allowed the little girl to kiss its mother good-bye, and went to another hotel to wait for a train. She followed him there, and fell on her knees to request that he take her with him. He coldly refused, and locked the door in her face. Patterson, who was getting $120 a month in his mashing days, has since gone to work at $40, and is branded as a sneak and a villain. It thus seems that he and Mrs. Fisher have paid dearly for their little caper, which ought to convince men and women generally that capers are always expensive.

In this paragraph from the Brooklyn Evening Star (Brooklyn, New York) of 22nd March 1853, little caper is a pun on the surname Capers:

Married.—At the Chief of Police Office, City Hall, Brooklyn, Monday, March 20th, 1853. James Capers to Mary Darcy, by Judge John B. King, of the Police Court. On this interesting occasion, officer Wm. Applegate acted as grooms-man and Miss Catherine Quin as brides-maid.—Immediately after the ceremony the happy couple with their friends proceeded on a short journey to Red Hook Point, where they take lodgings.—The marriage was a sort of compromise to settle a little caper kicked up by Jim.

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