Audrey (1888), by Philip Richard Morris

Audrey (1888), by Philip Richard Morris

(The weekly newspaper Graphic commissioned twenty-one studies of Shakespeare’s heroines, which were exhibited in London in 1888.)






a sudden and unaccountable change of mood or behaviour





Via French, the English word caprice is from Italian capriccio, which, composed of capo, head, and riccio, hedgehog, suggests a convulsive shudder in which the hair stands on end like a hedgehog’s spines. The meaning of capriccio was originally sudden shiver of fear and shifted to sudden whim under the influence, by folk etymology, of capra, goat, associated with frisky movement.

In Queen Anna’s New World of Words, or Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues (1611), John Florio (1553-1625) thus defined capriccio:

A suddaine toy, a fantasticall humor, a selfe-conceit. Also a suddain feare making ones haire to stand an end. Also a shivering or chilling cold or fit as of an ague.

The Italian

– capo is from Latin caput/capitis, meaning head,

capra and its masculine capro are from Latin capra and caper/capri, meaning she-goat and he-goat,

– riccio is from Latin ericius, hedgehog, the ultimate source of English urchin (read urchin & hérisson).


English has borrowed the Italian capriccio in its transferred senses of a lively piece of music composed freely and without adhering to the rules for any specific musical form, and a painting or other work of art representing a fantasy or a mixture of real and imaginary features. The New World of Words: or, Universal English Dictionary (1706), compiled by Edward Phillips and John Kersey, contains the following:

Caprichio or Caprice, (Ital.) a foolish Fancy, Whimsey, Freak or Maggot. Caprichio’s are also pieces of Musick, Poetry, and Painting, in which the force of Imagination goes beyond the Rules of Art.


Before adopting the French form caprice in the second half of the 17th century, English had adapted the Italian capriccio, perhaps via Spanish capricho, as caprich. In Glossographia, or, A dictionary interpreting all such hard words of whatsoever language now used in our refined English tongue with etymologies, definitions and historical observations on the same (1661), Thomas Blount (1618-79) wrote:

– Caprichio Caprich (from the Spanish capricho) an humor, a fancy, a toy in ones head, a giddy thought; hence
– Caprichious, humersome, fantastical, full of whimseys or toys, giddy-headed.


In his pastoral comedy As You Like It (around 1599), when Touchstone, the court jester, says to Audrey, a country wench, that he wishes the gods had made her “poetical”, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes a double play on the word goat by using the phonetical similarity of Goth and the supposed etymological connection between capricious and Latin caper-capra:

I am heere with thee, and thy Goats, as the most
capricious Poet honest Ouid [= Ovid] was among the Gothes.

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