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Mind your language

What is a ‘tergiversation’?

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

Last year, someone at US dictionary Merriam-Webster noticed that lots of people were looking up the word tergiversation online. It was because Washington Post columnist George Will had used it in a piece about the US senator Lindsey Graham. ‘During the government shutdown,’ he had written, ‘Graham’s tergiversations — sorry, this is the precise word — have amazed’.

It might have been the precise word, but it has two meanings: one is ‘desertion or abandonment of a cause, apostasy’; the other is ‘shifting, shuffling, equivocation, prevarication’. Both are pejorative, taking the idea of turning one’s back on a principle, since the Latin for ‘back’ is tergum. From the context, Mr Wills meant the latter.


An early use of tergiversation comes in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, used in a synonymous doublet with cautel: ‘crafty cauteles and tergiversations’. Cautel, from Latin cautela, a precaution or exception in law, was coming to the end of its two-century career in English, while tergiversation was just beginning. For wriggly vocab, Mr Wills this year might like to try noctivagation.

Going about by night became contentious when there was a curfew. Chatty old Anthony Wood records a row in 1678 between the university and the town at Oxford when a pro-proctor asked Philip Dodwell, a chandler hanging about in the street at 11 o’clock, to go home, and fined him 40 shillings when he refused. Wood was told there were 370 alehouses in Oxford, plenty to noctivagate to. At the same period, the Punishment Book of the Warden of All Souls College records fines for Fellows caught straying by night. I don’t know if the present Warden keeps a punishment book.

What noctivagators were diurnally, gyrovagues were for their whole lives. ‘Tramping from province to province,’ as St Benedict said in his Rule, ‘staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony.’

St Benedict enjoined vows, not of poverty, chastity and obedience, but of obedience, conversion of life and stability. He expected more than lip-service to a promise of being strong and stable.


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