Pants on fire, film at 11.
Dear Word Detective: I was reading your column on “ruckus,” and in that description you used the word “prevaricate.” I have never heard it before and I was wondering if you could expand on where it comes from and its history. I’m surprised that it isn’t used more often, it seems to me to be a more intelligent-sounding alternative to calling someone a “liar” (plus you get to use a big word while accusing them, adding salt to the injury). — Diana T.
Ah yes, that was in answer to the man whose small son, having been told he could not create a “ruckus” in school, assumed that he would be allowed to run wild at home, and eagerly and innocently admitted his intentions when questioned. That sort of guileless honesty is, I fear, why so few children are elected to high office in our country. Not that it works for adults, either. The new Governor of New York State has lately been trying a “total honesty” approach, cheerfully fessing up to all manner of scandalous transgressions, but his constituents seem less than thrilled. It would seem that while the Emperor’s new clothes are always imaginary, the voters prefer them to nothing. [Note: the two preceding sentences were written in April 2008, which is when subscribers saw them and they made more sense.]
“Prevaricate” is indeed a great word, and although it is quite old, dating back to the 16th century in English, I think it actually does a better job than “lie” of pegging the particular forms dishonesty takes today. “To lie” means simply to tell an untruth, to declare to be true that which one knows to be false. Lying is a simple act, but also simple to unravel by proving the truth (and, of course, posting it to YouTube).
“Prevaricate,” however, covers a lot more ground and provides much more wiggle room. To “prevaricate” is, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “to deviate from straightforwardness; to speak or act in an evasive way; to quibble, equivocate.” The first definition in the America Heritage Dictionary is even more delicate: “To stray from truthfulness or sincerity: equivocate, palter, shuffle.” Thus to “prevaricate” is to bend, twist, fudge, flog and forcefully edit the truth in a way to make it do what you want without resorting to an easily-refuted yes-or-no “lie.” Not surprisingly, politicians and bureaucrats are the Jedi masters of prevarication, as noted by an Australian newspaper in 2005: “Official witnesses can … be economical with the truth, tailor their evidence, prevaricate or misrepresent without sanction.”
For a word that is apparently vital to our modern system of government, “prevaricate” has a charmingly rustic origin. The Latin “praevaricare” meant “to plow crookedly,” resulting in crooked furrows in the field. Metaphorically, it meant “to stray from the path of what is right, to be corrupt, to violate the law,” also its original meaning in English. The current meaning of “speaking in a dishonestly evasive manner” dates to about 1625.
Interestingly, since the mid-19th century, “prevaricate” has also been used to mean “to delay action by equivocating and quibbling,” a dance step familiar to any C-Span viewer. In this age of congressional task forces and presidential commissions, the last refuge of a scoundrel is, it seems, appointing a committee to study one’s own prevarications.