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I understand that the phrase in the title means "to behave frivolously".

E.g.: A bereaved person does not cut capers in the street, and neither does a failed pupil.

Google gives around 3 links for the phrase, including Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (English edition) and Frederique , a novel by Paul de Kock . Google ngram shows no hits between 1700-2000.

Question Can you give me some idea of the origin of this phrase? And why it has hardly ever been used?

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    I highly recommend searching for obscure English phrases in the following online dictionary: etymonline entry for caper They do a pretty good job there. May 30, 2012 at 1:54

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You’re probably looking for sense b below. Another nuance of caper would be as some sort of crime exploit / adventure / escapade.

caper, n.²

Pronunciation: /ˈkeɪpə(r)/
Etymology: apparently abbreviated < capriole n.: Florio has Italian ‘capriola a capriole or caper in dancing’. Compare caper v.¹; also cab < cabriolet.

  • a. A frolicsome leap, like that of a playful kid; a frisky movement, esp. in dancing; said also of horses; fig. a fantastic proceeding or freak.

    • 1592 R. Greene Quip for Vpstart Courtier sig. H2ᵛ, You maister vsher of the dauncing schoole‥stand vpon your tricks and capers.
    • a1616 Shakespeare As you like It (1623) ɪɪ. iv. 51 We that are true Louers, runne into strange capers.
    • 1712 Pope Spectator 18 June, An Hour in Secret, wherein he had his Frisks and Capers.
    • 1856 F. L. Olmsted Journey Slave States 68 Jane [a horse] gave a little sympathizing caper.
  • b. to cut a caper or capers : to dance in a frolicsome way, to act fantastically. †to cut a caper on nothing: to be hanged.

    • a1616 Shakespeare Twelfth Night (1623) ɪ. iii. 116 And. Faith, I can cut a caper. To. And I can cut the mutton too't.
    • 1691 A. Wood Athenæ Oxon. II. 262 By his high dancing and cutting of Capers‥he did‥sprain a vein.
    • 1708 P. A. Motteux Wks. F. Rabelais ɪᴠ. xvi, Two of the honestest Gentlemen in Catchpole-land had been made to cut a Caper on nothing.
    • 1711 R. Steele Spectator No. 4. ⁋8 He can Dance, though he does not cut Capers.
    • 1827 B. Disraeli Vivian Grey III. v. xv. 320 Executing the most splendid somersets, and cutting all species of capers.
  • c. transf. Any activity or pursuit, spec. a fashionable occupation. Also, a ‘game’, dodge, racket. (There are many shades of meaning in U.S., N.Z., and elsewhere.)

    • 1839 Spirit of Times 9 Nov. 423/2 When they are short on't for cradles, a feedin trof is jest the caper.
    • 1840 C. F. Hoffman Greyslaer I. 84 The bizness is a bad one, any how you can fix it, capting; but I think I understand the caper on't.
    • 1851 H. Mayhew London Labour I. 416/1, I used to dress tidy and very clean for the ‘respectable broken-down tradesman or reduced gentleman’ caper.
    • 1867 London Herald 23 Mar. 221 ‘He'll get five years penal for this little caper,’ said the policeman.
    • a1889 Boston Herald (D.A.E.), Mind-reading is now the proper caper.
    • 1897 J. Conrad Nigger of ‘Narcissus’ iv. 81 ‘I know his caper,’ he said, in a low voice.
    • 1926 J. Black You can't Win x. 131 If anything had gone wrong with this caper and we had to take a pinch.
    • 1944 J. A. Lee Shining with Shiner 75 It's getting worse for this caper every year.
    • 1959 N.Z. Listener 12 June 5/2 Marxism was the caper.
    • 1959 Times 26 May 12/7 Now let's see if the car stops at all after that little caper.
    • 1964 J. Burke Hard Day's Night v. 104, I know your caper. The kidney punch and the rabbit clout.

Compounds

Comb. caper-cut n. the cutting of a caper. caper-cutting adj. that cuts capers: caper-witted adj. of frivolous or unsteady mind.

  • a1640 J. Fletcher & P. Massinger Loves Pilgrimage ɪɪ. i, in F. Beaumont & J. Fletcher Comedies & Trag. (1647) sig. Aaaaaaaa4/2, My poor child‥Your caper-cutting son has run away with.
  • a1670 J. Hacket Scrinia Reserata (1693) i. 227 Whatsoever any Caperwitted Man may observe.
  • 1875 R. Browning Aristophanes' Apol. 361 Those flute-girls—trash who‥fed eye with caper-cuts.

Citation

caper, n.2
Second edition, 1989; online version March 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/27402; accessed 29 May 2012. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1888.

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