A Brief History of…Caveats

You’ll have to bear with me on this one and certainly forgive me because there is one long bow I draw within this exercise but now that I’ve given you my caveat lector it’s time to explore the origin of caveats.

The caveat in its most common legal usage exists as Caveat Emptor which literally translates into “buyer beware”. Caveats are most commonly used today as temporary warnings on real property and although they do not necessarily prevent the sale of any real property, good luck obtaining finance if there is a caveat in place, or finding a half-decent lawyer or realtor that feels comfortable telling you to go ahead with the purchase without holding comprehensive professional liability insurance.

Less common usages are Caveat Lector (Reader Beware”…you’ve been warned), Caveat Venditor (“Seller Beware”) and Cavere ab aliquo, which is definitely out of use but old judgments will still turn out this gem as a verb for “making yourself secure” or to secure bail or a surety.

Cavea first appeared as Latin for “hollow” or “cave”. The obvious evolutions of this are “cavern”, “cavity”, “excavate” and even “grave” as a type of hollow opening. Later the Latins and Romans used it specifically for “eye sockets” and your “palate” and as a root for “theatre seats” (No Idea! Maybe a small opening for an individual in a crowd?!), as well as “birdcage” and “beehive”.

As a side note Cumulus, from the same root, in early Latin was a swelling, heap or opening that built on itself, such as a series of caves, which gives us today the French, became old English origin of “cumulative”. As in “Does your Honour intend to impose the sentences concurrently or cumulatively?”.

Old Norman gaiole, from French jaole, from Latin gabiola, from Late Latin caveola from Early Latin cavea…gives us….“gaol” or “jail” both originating from this word originally meaning an opening. At some stage, or maybe always, an opening included an opening you could be trapped or contained in (hence “birdcage” and “beehive” being literal translations for the Romans).

Further modern “cage” is a short leap from cavea becoming cagea in Old French.

Now this is where I make my jump. At some stage we know that a Caveat evolved to mean a warning, cavea existed as the accusative verb of caveas, which could be to accuse one of being hollow or attempting to trap.

Therefore a Caveat Emptor might also be read as “the buyer should beware of being trapped”.

This may not necessarily help you in practice, but when you come across a Caveat or are imposing one remember that it exists as a temporary warning to a party not to be trapped into something that already exists, like an outstanding liability, personal guarantee, a bankrupt estate or for the sake of neat endings: an actual cave. 

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