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Word of the Year: ‘Tergiversate.’ Yeah, that’ll catch on.

December 2, 2011

No, I’ve never heard or read it, either. I can only assume the lexicographers at Dictionary.com are chained to  workstations in the bowels of a medieval castle somewhere and thus do not get out much.

“Tergiversate,” according to this HuffPo piece, is pronounced “ter-JIV-er-sate,” and means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; equivocate.”

Greeaaaat. Just what we need, a big, ugly latinate word that means “flip-flop.”  What’s wrong with equivocate? It’s a slightly less ugly latinate word with the same meaning.

In the middle of December, the Open Page blog will go on an indefinite hiatus.  Visit the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on programs and events.

And have you run into this word anywhere? HuffPo reports a single sighting (citing?), in the Times of London in August, where it was used “to describe the changing attitudes of stock markets.”

(Surely HuffPo means “attitudes toward stock markets?” Or perhaps, “attitudes of stock market traders?” Only sentient beings can have attitudes. Yikes! This subject is making me persnickety.)

Jay Schwartz, Dictionary.com’s Head of Content, defends this absurd selection of a word that you are most likely seeing here for the one and only time in your life, by telling HuffPo:

“We’re taking a stand on this choice….This word encompasses an sense of ‘flip flopping’ but it also implies a number of other complicating forces. Unlike ‘flip flop’, ‘tergiversate’ suggests a lack of intentionality – it’s a change in state more out of necessity, as new events happen at great speed, whether in the economy, politics or attitudes.”

Whatever. When has this ever been not the case? And yet we muddled through, I don’t know, the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights era, Vietnam, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the entire Bush Administration, without resort to an ungainly archaic word.

The one thing tergiversate has going for it is its deep historical pedigree, which goes back to 1655 or thereabouts. But that’s it.

A Word of the Year should flow off the tongue, and it should immediately feel right. It should be almost onomatapoeic, with its sound at least cooperating with its meaning.

The sound of tergiversate cooperates with no meaning whatsoever. It’s like a scientific or medical or scholarly word, meant not to share meaning but to obscure it for the exclusive use of an in-group.

Like an indie film, it seems to lack enough beats — it needs another syllable or two to limber it up and let it flow from the front of the mouth.

I keep wanting to make it “tergiviscerate” — that scans better, doesn’t it? — which might be a word to describe what Barack Obama would do to Rick Perry in a presidential campaign debate (or Michelle Bachman or Herman Cain or even Mitt Romney, who, after all, is the reigning tergiversator-in-chief).

What’s more, a Word of the Year should be sexy and fun and fill a need we previously did not know existed. “Unfriend,” the 2009 WOTY chose by the Oxford Dictionary, fits most of these requirements. So does “locavore,” Oxford’s 2007 WOTY.

Of course, Merriam-Webster’s  2006 WOTY,  “truthiness” –invented by TV comedian Steven Colbert — meets all these standards. It is (or should be) the consensus pick as best coinage of the millennium.

As you can see, dictionary outfits compete to anoint their own publicity-generating WOTY, with the American Dialect Society joining the ones already mentioned. Two cheers for capitalism, I suppose.

But I find it especially disappointing Dictionary.com has botched this year’s job so badly. Since I moved most of my work life online, Dictionary.com has become my go-to word reference guide.

Yes, the two-volume Compact Oxford is over there on the floor by the bookcase, and the beloved American Heritage remains enthroned on its corner dictionary stand.

Who has time to leave the keyboard to look up a word? Dictionary.com meets my needs without compromising my writerly principles, chiefly because it not only provides definitions, it provides definitions for all the nuances and forms and connotations of a word.

And what’s more important, it supplies etymologies for each term. A dictionary without etymology is not worth the trees that died to create it. Or in this case, the carbon spewed into the atmosphere to power the Internet.

Finally, while I’m berating my new friends at Dictionary.com (and no, I’m not going to unfriend them), let me say that the best words in the language, the ones that have the most power, are the 15 percent that come from the Anglo-Saxon origins of English. The 85 percent of latinate words, foisted upon the language by the Frenchifiers who accompanied William the Conqueror, are to be avoided whenever possible.

Writers are aware of this– good ones, at least. I suppose it’s too much to expect lexicographers to know it, too. Writers are the race car drivers of language. Lexicographers are the auto mechanics.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2011 1:36 pm

    They all ready call it a “Romney” For Mitt (Mitt is not his real first name) Willard is.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 2, 2011 7:32 pm

    I thought Mitt was a nickname, as in “dumb as a catcher’s ….”

  3. June 21, 2013 10:59 pm

    hi po

  4. June 21, 2013 10:59 pm

    thank you

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