caper

“I didn’t come here for the capers!”

Harry shouts this at Marianne in an alley on Pantelleria. Harry is Ralph Fiennes. Marianne is Tilda Swinton. Pantelleria is an Italian island between Sicily and Tunisia. The movie is A Bigger Splash, which Aina and I saw tonight.

He did come for the capers, though. And I think we all do, really.

True, we don’t all like the little green pickled flower bud, its name bequeathed by the Greeks as κάππαρις, taken to Latin as capparis, thence by English as caperes, which was finally taken as a plural and resingularized as caper. I do like these capers, and I think Harry does in the movie, too. They are a quite singular flavour in any dish, although you never have just one at a time. But Harry didn’t come for them.

And maybe we don’t all like the caper that is cut from capriole, a frolicsome leap as of a young goat – capriola in Italian, from capra ‘goat (feminine)’ – although I can’t see why people wouldn’t at least want to watch a good one, even if they weren’t up to doing any themselves.

But surely we all like the extended sense of that second caper: those caprices that cut us free for a spell from our usual rules. Who doesn’t like a diversion, a frisk, even a little risk? And yes, caprice is also a related word: it comes (via French) from Italian capriccio from capro ‘goat (masculine)’, because it jumps around as a goat does. Harry surely wanted that. Capers are had in the movie.

I won’t go into the plot of A Bigger Splash, in case you want to see it. I will tell you the title makes it seem giddy, when in fact its frolics are delivered in a more meditative pace, with close-ups and careful jumps and small things that season the dish with little bursts. I do regret, in a way, that it was not set on Capri. I won’t say it gets my goat, but it’s worth saying that Capri also probably gets its name from the Latin for ‘goat’. Does Ralph Fiennes play an old goat? He is perhaps more satyr than satire, but if you see the movie you will see him on full display in his prime.

As may we all be, in one way or another, and for as long as possible. When, in this movie, Tilda Swinton at 55 can cut a more striking physique than Dakota Johnson at 26, we must acknowledge that a capering career is likely to keep a person budding for a long time – as long, I suppose, as you don’t alternate between pickled and recuperating.

Isn’t it funny, by the way, that caprice, which often tends to be seen as more feminine, comes from the masculine goat, while caper, surely the more masculine-toned of the pair (schoolboy capers, anyone?), comes from the feminine? Language is capricious that way. It cuts such capers.

And I don’t mean it cuts flowers in the bud. A caper would grow, you know, into a Flinders rose, a floppy white blossom, and bear a berry too. As long as it is allowed to carry on. But they grow on bushes; you can have some of one and some of the other. Which is really the point of capers, isn’t it?

One response to “caper

  1. Does anyone else remember that in the first few weeks of news coverage of the Watergate break-in in 1972, the media called it “the Watergate caper”? The term may have been a euphemism coined by someone in the White House. As the seriousness of the “caper” became clear (it ultimately sank the Nixon presidency), it became “the Watergate scandal” instead.

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