On second thought…

Dear Word Detective: “Tergiversate” is not listed in Roget’s Thesaurus nor in my unabridged Webster’s Dictionary. From the context in which it appeared, I suspect it means equivocate or mislead, though now I can’t recall where I saw it. (That’s what happens to ninety-year-old brains.) — Dan Chasman.

Wow. My brain must be older than I thought it was, because I’ve been forgetting that sort of thing since I was in my late twenties. For example, I used to routinely forget where I parked the car when we lived in Brooklyn, so we always had to allow extra time to find it when we wanted to go somewhere. Then one day the car was, sadly, stolen. At least I think it was. It’s hard to say for sure. That was thirty years ago, and it may still be parked wherever I left it, somewhere near Prospect Park.

I’m shocked, shocked, to hear that your Webster’s unabridged dictionary doesn’t include “tergiversate.” Oddly enough, the free dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com does, so there’s that. Incidentally, am I the only one having difficulty pronouncing this word? According to the M-W website, it’s pronounced “TERGE-i-ver-sate” with a soft “g.” Fair warning: I’m gonna forget that in about ten minutes and be back to saying “ter-giver-sate.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also lists “tergiversate,” and helpfully defines it as “To practice tergiversation.” That seems a bit perverse, but the noun “tergiversation” actually showed up in English in the late 16th century (1570), while the verb toddled in about a century later (1678). “Tergiversation” comes from the Latin verb “tergiversari,” which means “to turn one’s back” or “to evade,” and is formed from “tergum” (the back) plus “vertere,” to turn.

The general meaning of “tergiversation” is “turning one’s back” on something or someone in a variety of metaphorical senses. To “tergiversate” can mean to abandon a cause to which one was formerly devoted, e.g., to quit a political party or cause and embrace its opponents. It can also mean to “turn one’s back” on honor and honesty, to evade an issue or question, to prevaricate, equivocate and deceive. The politician who devotes five hundred words to avoiding a simple “yes” or “no” answer to a questioner is “tergiversating,” as is the candidate who campaigns on one side of an issue and flips to the other as soon as the polls close (the OED lists “turncoating” as a synonym). Given that these sorts of behavior are standard operating procedure in our modern democracies, it’s surprising that “tergiversation” isn’t a more popular word. Of course, “lying” and “flip-flopping” are both much easier to spell.


Leave a comment