Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

In a recent correspondence with my colleague Kathy I had referred to “the tergiversations and earnest hunches of dictionaries”. Kathy, an enthusiastic word sleuth, immediately caught a whiff of a juicy investigation and set out on the trail of this word that she had not met before.

Noting that <tergiversations> is a noun she immediately thought of the word <conversations> whose analysis she was sure of.

<con + verse/ + ate/ + ion + s>

Kathy then embarked on a parallel word sum as a first step in figuring out the  meaning. 

<tergi + verse/+  ate/ + ion + s → tergiversations>

The first element of her proposed analysis rather foxed her, so looking again she noted that she saw the word 'givers' within <tergiversations>. Could this word have to do with giving information, she pondered, and tried a corresponding word sum. 

<ter + give/ + er + s + ate/ + ion + s → tergiversations

Kathy commented that her doubts grew when she tried to think of a morpheme that would give her a clue to <ter>, that first part of this word sum. She thought of <interrogate>.  Could <ter> be the base of <interrogate>? No; she was sure that <inter-> is a prefix.

So Kathy wrote to me.

“I am stumped, I looked in the word searcher for words with <tergi>, no luck. Then I tried <terg>, nothing that looked like it could match the meaning. Then I tried <ter>, lots of words, but I am not sure if they match?”

Well, I’m too old and rickety to make even a passing imitation of a knight in shining armour, but how could I not respond to the cry of an orthographic maiden in distress?

Here’s what I wrote.



So, Kathy - <tergiversation> is a Latinate compound (you know - something that according to edubabbling orthodoxy does not exist!) whose second component, the twin <vert / verse> "turn", is what you have already sniffed out in <con + verse/ + ate/ + ion + s>. The root of the first component is the Latin <terg(um)> "back".

You can no doubt see the metaphor behind the the lexicographic denotation of <terg + i + verse/ + ate/ + ion>:

"making conflicting or evasive statements; equivocating".

You might like to investigate the zoological term 'tergal'.

Beware! Latin also had an entirely unrelated verb <terg(ere) / ters(um)> "wipe, polish" that gives us our twin base the twin <terge / terse> (I know that the form <terge> needs the final <e> from <absterge>, attested since 1541). This gives a rather interesting slant to the term 'a terse statement' - squeaky clean, like something to which detergent has been applied! 

So you can now add <tergiversation> to your list of the hundreds of Latinate compounds that give the lie to the edubabbling orthodoxy.

Here's a standard statement of the Article of Faith that the ovine masses swallow whole.


This decree is, of course, floccinaucinihilipilificatory (a quintuple Latin compound!) balderdash!


Hail to thee, blithe Kathy; ewe thou never wert!

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