When an election looms, the talking heads go into overtime. Forget concision; these moving mouths will not give terse conversation, returning instead many a turgid verse, a sort of – if not terrorization – torporization, through saturating reverberations of treatises verging on the vertiginous. All the sound and fury… signifying nothing. And then, of course, there are the politicians.

You thought I was talking about politicians? When was the last time you got to hear anything they said at length? The news media insist on clipping anything a politician has to say down to a mere sentence fragment, reserving for themselves (and their pet chatterati) the right to pontificate and speculate at inordinate length. And in their inevitably inane analyses, one of the prime crimes decried is tergiversation.

Is that hypocritical? In a way, though not necessarily for the reason that one might imagine. Tergiversation is not – however it may sound – a question of going on at great length. Rather, it can mean “turning one’s back on a cause one had espoused” – changing your position on something – or “being evasive or deliberately ambiguous”. It comes from Latin tergum “back” and vertere “turn”. (And in the second sense, the use of tergiversation can be an example of tergiversation if you feel confident your audience won’t know what it means.)

So when a politician speaks and knows he (or she) will be quoted in brief snippets, the politician is not in a position of being able to say anything substantial, may not be in a position of being able to say something clear, and in fact in many cases is not even in a position of being able to say something true, since a bare statement on something in which the necessary background is not supplied can be lacking information that can’t be assumed and without which the statement simply can’t be understood correctly. (The late Richard Feynman does a great job in explaining this at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMFPe-DwULM.) But watch out if a politician tries to avoid giving a misleadingly simplistic statement! The moment they try to avoid being unnecessarily simplistic, they get jumped on for not being clear. Imagine if someone said to you “Express to me the foundational principles of general relativity in one syllable” or “How can you make the economy work better by raising taxes – yes or no?”

So in that sense the news media are creating the very ambiguity and misleadingness they decry: a politician has a choice between saying something misleadingly simplistic or saying something that seems vague and evasive. But meanwhile, the chatterati will criticize a politician for taking this or that position – but will also impugn a politician who changes his position on something! So tergiversation of that sort is in its absence enjoined, but in its presence decried.

But, oh, no, the chatterati are generally not guilty of tergiversation themselves per se. They do, however, participate in the inanition of political discourse (which means they are emptying it and starving it of nutrition), especially in their strongly tactics-oriented discourse (as though it were another sports league).

But enough excoriation. How do you like the taste of this word? It stays rather nicely near the tip of the tongue, straying only at r (and only if you say it rather than eliding it in the typically British manner). It has that common nominalizing ending, ation, giving it just a slightly more intellectual tinge. Its stress pattern is out of phase with its morphemes, a 3+2 beat. And its letters present many anagram opportunities. I like tergi > tiger + versat > starve + ion. We can also make (among others) griever station, Sir Vegetation, o a virgin street, and nor give it a rest.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting tergiversation (back in July 2009).

One response to “tergiversation

  1. Pingback: terse | Sesquiotica

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