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I ask this question because Webster runs a lot of top 10 lists that interest me from time to time. The current list I was browsing is called "Ten Painless Ways to Improve a Conversation". The second word of the list is the adjective "cavalier", meaning "disregard" or "showing no concern".

This puzzled me since the noun means somebody who is a gentleman or a type of cavalryman. Why would the two words have such differing meanings? This led me to search for the etymology of cavalier, the noun having come into use in the 1600-1700s by the French and Englishmen.

The etymology for the adjective is confusing at best; here a quote from EtymologyOnline:

Sense advanced in 17c. to "knight," then "courtly gentleman," which led to adj. "disdainful" (1650s); earlier "gallant" (1640s).(snip)

How on earth could "courtly gentleman" lead to the adjective "disdainful"?

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3 Answers 3

In the English Civil War (1642-1651), the Cavaliers were the supporters of the King, opposed to the Roundheads, who supported Parliament. Cavaliers wore their hair long and dressed in conspicuous finery; Roundheads cut their hair short (hence the name) and dressed very plainly.

The Roundheads won that war, and I suspect that the pejorative sense of "cavalier" arose as a result, especially since your first citation seems to have appeared around the end of the war.

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That would be part of it. From the other side - that of the aristocrats themselves - a certain unimpressed attitude was fashionable among the upper classes after the Restoration (not a million miles from the ironic disdain fashionable among middle class youth today), so a cavalier attitude would have been affected by the next generation of the cavaliers' descendants. –  Jon Hanna Dec 27 '12 at 10:08

wiktionary has the following etymology for the English word:

cavalier 1589, from Middle French cavalier 'horseman',
[1] from Old Italian cavaliere (“mounted soldier, knight”),
[2] from Old Provençal cavalier, from Late Latin caballārius (“horseman”), from Latin caballus (“horse”)

The first sense of cavalier is that of horseman and especially of horse-soldier or knight. These were troubled times in many countries and being a cavalier most of the time meant being armed.

Cavaliers had many opportunities to make use of their arms (fencing spades and later pistols). However, to avoid resorting to these extremities cavaliers needed to intimidate their potential opponent and to do so cultivated the art of inspiring fear. One way of doing so was to show disdain and self confidence.

This trait of character was not limited to roads or roadside inns but was also to be expected in society. Cavaliers were expected to be very assertive against other male aristocrats as a way of upholding their rank whilst also very gallant with women (hence the other - opposite - sense of gallant present in cavalier-servant).

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I'd like to add some info... The original Latin form was caballarius (horseman) which comes from the Latin "Caballus" (horse). But what's interesting is that our (italian) "cavaliere" comes from the French as well. Usually (I'm not sure if all) the words in italian ending in -ere are borrowed from French. We all have the same roots, but it seems we took that word from French. I studied it my second-year Linguistics exam. If you want I can "dig" up my old material. :) –  Alenanno May 17 '11 at 16:47
    
@Alenanno, You're right, it is from Provencal. I got that confirmed from several sources. Provençal exported the word to French and to Italian. Not sure whether French took it directly from Provençal or from Italian with all the words pilfered from Italian during Renaissance. France had made chevalier out of cheval. To make cavalier, you need cavallo from Vulgar Latin caballus. –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 17 '11 at 17:06

To my amazement even "etymonline.com" says "the source of the borrowing is uncertain... Perhaps from some Balkan or Anatolian language". As usual when the source could not be found in Europe it should be unknown. Nobody thinks of the neighboring Middle East might be the origin of anything that somehow changed Europe.

The Romans saw their first knight-leaded armies-on-horses in their fights against the Sassanid Persians. That is where they got the idea of knights, knighthood, Flags, coats of arms, and fighting on the horse-back. The source of the word is Persian. The word "Savaar" in Persian meant/means the man on the horse. In the military the word referred/refers to the higher-rank officers on the horse-back. In the traditional Iranian postal system also (as mentioned in the work of Herodotus in the fifth century BC) another version of the word, "Chapaar", meant the postman on the horse. "Savaar" is the origin of "caval", which is the origin of "cavalry", "cavalier" and the similar words in European languages.

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1. This does not answer the question of how cavalier as an adjective came to mean ‘disdainful’. 2. This is extremely unlikely. Latin had both an /s/ and a /v/ (though realised [w], there was no phonemic distinction between the two), and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that a word with those two phonemes would have them randomly changed to /k/ and /b/ when borrowed into Latin. (I presume this is the word you’re talking about.) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 15 at 19:39
    
And if sowar is indeed the word you’re talking about as I assume, it wasn’t even anything like savaar at the time of the Romans. At the word would supposedly have been borrowed into various European languages, it would have been more like its ancestral, Avestan form, asabāra, which is even further from caballus or any of the other European words. There is also the problem that this means ‘horse-carried’ (= ‘rider’), whereas all the European words mean ‘horse’. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 15 at 19:42
    
Ok, Let me explain why asabāra is not far from caballus. The word "asab" means horse (in modern Persian it is pronounced "asb".) The word "asabāra" literary means "over the horse". Over time "asabāra" is transformed into many different versions of the word: Sowar, Savaar, Chapaar, caval. As you might know the sounds of "CH","C", and "K" are interchangeable. Also the sounds of "V", "B", and "P" are interchangeable as well. That is why we have words in German and English like "Uber" and "Over" that are from the same origin. –  Sourena Oct 15 at 19:58
    
The meaning "disdainful" is most probably a later connotation of the word in the early modern times. There are many words like that in English that have a negative meaning but those meanings do not have connection with the original roots of the word. Examples that comes to my minds right now are "villain" which simply means "from a village" or "dexter" which means "left-handed". –  Sourena Oct 15 at 20:02
    
No, no, no, no, and no. Asb in Persian is equivalent to Avestan asp, which is the perfectly regular outcome of PIE *h₁eḱu̯o-. Asabāra (Old Persian, not Avestan as I accidentally wrote above) is to be divided as asa ‘horse’ + -bāra ‘carry’. It does not mean ‘over the horse’. The sounds you mention are not ‘interchangeable’ at all. Some of them have, as the result of various historical sound changes, changed into others of them (e.g., Latin /k/ becoming first /tʃ/ and then /s/ in French before front vowels), but they are not interchangeable. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 15 at 20:05

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