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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"?

  • I never wanted to own a Cavalier car because I thought it might not deign to start sometimes. – user126158 Dec 15 '15 at 1:01
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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.

  • 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
  • MT Head's assertion is a popular myth derived from Victorian illustrations. In fact, people on both sides dressed as well as they could afford to do; most men wore their hair long by modern standards, and only a few extreme Puritans cut it short. "Cavalier" was originally a rude nickname implying that Royalists were like rough foreign soldiers, but the Royalists adopted it in the sense of being gallant knights. I suppose the use of the word to mean "brusque or dismissive" comes from the former sense. – Kate Bunting Dec 2 '16 at 10:31
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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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Interestingly, the new Persian word Savaar was derived from middle Persian word Waspora/Waswora meaning knight or chevalier on horse. In plural form it was Wasporagaan that after Arab conquest of Iran initially changed to Asparaan/Aswaraan. Upon transformation of W to V or B in Iranian Persian the plural form of word has transformed to Savaaraan since at least a 1000 years ago. Savaar is the singular form and means "person on horse". Savaar is also the origin of Arabic word Kaber (meaning noble) that in plural form becomes Kabar. The European variations of Cabal, Cavalry, Caballero, Chevalier, etc. are all derivatives of Arabic Kabar.

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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.

  • 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 19:58
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    Please cite a source, any kind of source, that shows examples of where Latin borrowed words beginning in /s/ or even /tʃ/ by replacing that /s/ or /tʃ/ with a /k/ sound. Until you can do so, your theory has less than no merit whatsoever. Also remember that the word is found in many other languages than Latin, all of which very clearly show a /k/, and some of those (particularly Old Church Slavonic) are very particular about how they treat sibilants and affricates as opposed to velars. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 15 '14 at 20:08
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    We know exactly how they pronounced ‹c›: as a /k/. There’s lots of evidence for that. And in Italian, ‹c› is only pronounced /tʃ/ before front vowels. A horse is called cavallo in Italian, caballo in Spanish, caballu in Asturian, etc.—and they ALL have a /k/ sound, just like Latin did. So does OCS кобꙑла, Irish capall, Welsh ceffyl, Gaulish caballos, etc. The only languages that have /tʃ/ or /ʃ/ are the French ones, where the development /k/ -> /ʃ/ is completely regular. The word predates common knowledge of writing and the alphabet. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 15 '14 at 20:23

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