Last year, someone at Merriam-Webster noticed that lots of people were looking up the word tergiversation online. It was because the Washington Post columnist George F. Will had used it in a piece about Sen. Lindsey Graham. ‘During the government shutdown,’ he wrote, ‘Graham’s tergiversations — sorry, this is the precise word — have amazed.’
It might have been the precise word, but it has two meanings: ‘desertion or abandonment of a cause, apostasy’; and ‘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 Will meant the latter.
An early use of tergiversation comes in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), a polemical account of Protestant suffering at the hands of the Catholic Church. It was 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 Will this year might like to try noctivagation. Going about by night became contentious when there was a curfew. The antiquarian Anthony Wood describes a row in 1678 between the university and the town at Oxford when a university official 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. From the same period, the Punishment Book of the Warden of Oxford’s All Souls College records fines for Fellows caught straying by night.
What noctivagators were by night, 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 the politicians’ familiar promise of being ‘strong and stable’.