The University of Virginia Cavaliers share a nickname with the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA franchise, but that’s where the similarities end. The explanation for the nickname of the University of Virginia Cavaliers actually implies a story of historical importance to the region.
Located in Charlottesville, Virginia, the school with a total student population of close to 20,000 is often referred to simply as UVA for short (based on the VA Post Office state abbreviation for Virginia). The orange and navy now worn by the Cavaliers first came into effect in 1888 when athletic teams representing the university used to take on local YMCA teams for lack of more formal competition. Many people are interested to know that in the early days of college athletics, playing games against local YMCA groups was the norm across the country. In fact, the University of Kentucky basketball program that currently has the most wins of any college team in history began its success with a single win in the 1903 season against a YMCA team. United finished a disappointing 1-2 in that first season).
The origin of the nickname of the Cavaliers comes from what was happening in this region of the world during the seventeenth century, when England was involved in a civil war that pitted supporters of the parliamentary system of government against King Charles I, who claimed absolute power in terms of rule. The use of the word Cavalier predates the formation of the United States of America with a very similar spelling version of the word used by William Shakespeare in his famous play Henry IV. Shakespeare chose the word to describe a swordsman not unlike the University of Virginia’s current mascot, which is a sword-wielding fellow on horseback. Before being written by Shakespeare in the final years of the 16th century, the historical character of the word Cavaliers dates back to the Spanish word Caballeros (translation: horseman) which is actually a derivation of the Latin term caballarius -which has a meaning similar to Spanish term.
With a solid foundation of the etymology behind the term Cavaliers, it’s important to understand how it relates to the Virginia program in Charlottesville. Before the days of the American Revolutionary War, the modern state of Virginia was known as the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia had a reputation for being home to many loyalists who were very supportive of the British Crown. When the University of Virginia officially adopted the name Virginia Cavaliers in 1923, it was to pay homage to a bygone era when, during the tumultuous British Civil War of the 17th century, the good people of the Commonwealth of Virginia sided with royalist supporters who they were often referred to as Knights.
The next time you watch the University of Virginia Cavaliers take on the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (the oldest rivalry in the South, dating back to 1892), feel free to lean over to a friend and impress them with your intimate knowledge of the British Civil War of the 17th century and the subsequent role that era played in the eventual selection of the nickname for the UVA Cavaliers.