Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What's the Word?

In my Proust this morning, this sea-wet morsel: tergiversate.

Ter-giv-er-sate! From what manure-mucky corral of the Old West did this surly harlequin emerge, kicking against the rough fenceposts of our unsuspecting world with its mudheeled boots of fine-tooled Mexican leather? Erm, the muddy corral called Latin.

The Roman centurion might have been heard, before driving his spear into the side of yet another nameless, soon-forgotten enemy of the Empire, to say "Let's not tergiversate about whether this one is dead." Only he'd say everything but 'tergiversate' in Latin. Well, he'd say 'tergiversate' in Latin, but it's already Latin. I mean it's still Latin. Except for the suffix. Okay, I'm sick of this god-stabbing centurion.

This two thousand year survivor of a word was formed by combining tergum 'the back' with versare 'to turn' or 'to see' and AHD4 defines it as 1) to use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate; and 2) to change sides; apostasize.

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