The University of Virginia Cavaliers share a nickname with NBA franchise the Cleveland Cavaliers, but that’s where the similarities end. The University of Virginia Cavaliers nickname explanation actually implies a history of historical significance to the region.
Located in Charlottesville, Virginia, the school with a total student population of nearly 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 college used to pit against local YMCA teams for lack of more formal competition. Many people are interested to know that in the early days of collegiate athletics playing 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 (UK team closed with a disappointing 1-2 in that first season).
The origin of the Cavaliers nickname derives from what happened in this region of the world during the 17th century when England was involved in a civil war which pitted supporters of the parliamentary system of government against King Charles I who asserted 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 version of the word used by William Shakespeare in his famous Henry IV play. Shakespeare chose the word to describe a swordsman who was not unlike the current mascot of the University of Virginia which is a mounted swordsman. The historicity of the word Cavaliers, before being written by Shakespeare in the last years of the sixteenth century, dates back to the Spanish word caballeros (translation: knight) which is actually a derivation of the Latin term caballarius – which has a similar meaning to the 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 hosting large numbers of Loyalists who were highly supportive of the British crown. When the University of Virginia officially took on the name of the Virginia Cavaliers in 1923, it was in homage to a bygone era, when during the tumultuous British Civil War of the seventeenth century the good people of the Commonwealth of Virginia sided with Royalist supporters who they were often called 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 in on a friend and impress them with your in-depth knowledge of the British Civil War of the seventeenth century and the subsequent role that era played in the eventual selection of the UVA Cavaliers nickname.