On the court, the Cleveland Cavaliers are champions, bringing the first major sports title to the Ohio city in 52 years with their 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors in an exciting Game 7 of the NBA finals. But in the etymology books, the Cleveland Cavaliers are, well, “hacks.”
English first borrowed cavalier from the Spanish cavaliero, among other forms, which named a “horseman,” especially a “knight.” The word is first attested around 1470. Over the next few centuries, English rendered the word according to its French form, cavalier. The French and Spanish are a short trot away from the earlier Italian, cavaliere, from the Late Latin caballarius, a “horseman” or “rider.”
The Latin root is caballus, essentially a street word for “horse” that eventually supplanted the classical equus. This explains the words for “horse” in Latin’s daughter languages, e.g., the Spanish caballo. Early records describe a caballus as a “work horse” or “pack horse,” hence “nag,” “jade,” or “hack.” Growing out of figurative senses of “worn out,” jaded and hackneyed also derive from the latter two terms. Cavalry, cavalcade, chivalry, and chevalier are also in caballus’s stable, so to speak.
Scholars agree that Latin’s caballus is a loan word. Pointing to an Old Slavic cognate, kobyla, some think it comes from a Balkan source for a “gelding.” Focusing on its many Celtic cognates, others posit a Gaulish root. Ultimately, caballus is one etymology that won’t break.
By the end of the 1500s, cavalier specifically referred to a “gentleman trained at arms,” as the Oxford English Dictionary documents. By the 1640s, Cavalier nicknamed the swaggering gallants who fought for Charles I in his war against their epithetical counterparts, the Parliamentary Roundheads. Their swash-buckling was associated with recklessness, hence cavalier‘s attributive use for “careless” by 1657, associated with a “haughty” and “disdainful” attitude a century later.
Now, the Cleveland Cavaliers took their name in 1970, when the city’s Plain Dealer held a contest to christen the new NBA expansion team. Jerry Tomko submitted the winning name, explaining that cavaliers “represent a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.” Tomko’s description is apt for the 2015-16 NBA champions, who’ve proven – to their fans and their city – that they are definitely not tired, old horses.