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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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2 Answers 2

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

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