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 University of Virginia Cavaliers nickname actually involves a story of historical significance to the region.
Located in Charlottesville, Virginia, the school with a total student population of about 20,000 is often referred to simply as UVA for short (after the VA post office state abbreviation for Virginia). The orange and navy blue now worn by the Cavaliers first came into effect in 1888 when athletic teams representing the college used to face local YMCA teams for lack of more formal competition. Many people are interested to know that in the early days of college 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 victories of any varsity team in history began its success with a single victory in the 1903 season against a YMCA team (the United Kingdom team). Kingdom finished with a disappointing 1-2 in that first season.)
The origin of the Cavaliers nickname comes from what was happening in this region of the world during the seventeenth century when England was embroiled in a civil war that pitted supporters of the parliamentary system of government against King Charles I, who claimed the absolute power in terms of rule. The use of the word Cavalier predates the formation of the United States of America, with a very similarly spelled version of the word used by William Shakespeare in his famous Henry IV play. Shakespeare chose the word to describe a swordsman no different from the current University of Virginia mascot, which is a man wielding a sword on horseback. Before being written by Shakespeare in the late 16th century, the historical nature 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 similar meaning to the Spanish term.
With a solid foundation of the etymology behind the term Cavaliers, it is important to understand how it relates to the Virginia program in Charlottesville. Before the days of the American War of Independence, the current state of Virginia was known as the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia had a reputation for being home to a large number of 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 tribute to a bygone era when during the tumultuous 17th-century British Civil War the good folks of the Commonwealth of Virginia sided with the royalist supporters who they were often known as Cavaliers.
Next time you see 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 reach out to a friend and impress them with your in-depth knowledge of the 17th century British Civil War and the later role that era played in the eventual selection of the UVA Cavaliers nickname.