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Prevaricate – Podictionary Word of the Day

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In 1601 Philemon Holland came out with an English translation from Latin, of the now 2000 year old Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder.

Here’s what Pliny had to say about the word prevarication:

“The ploughman, unlesse he bend and stoupe forward..must..leave much undone as it ought to be; a fault which in Latine we call Prevarication  and this tearme appropriate unto Husbandrie, is borrowed from thence by Lawyers.”

These days when someone is asked a question and they skate around the answer they are said to prevaricate.

prevaricateThey are avoiding the question.

The word prevaricate was built on an earlier word varicare that meant “to straddle” which in turn came from varus meaning “crooked.”

It may seem obvious how a word that meant “crooked” grew into a word that means “avoiding the question” but how did the farmer get involved?

The “crooked” meaning of varus was also applied in classical Latin to the crooked legs of people who were knock-kneed.

The pre part of prevaricate might be thought of as “before” or “going forward” so that prevaricate comes to mean “going forward crookedly” or “walking crookedly.”

Thus the reason a negligent plowman was said to prevaricate was that the furrow he cut wasn’t straight. Hence a lawyer or politician who isn’t giving you a straight line is prevaricating.


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.

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2 Responses to “Prevaricate – Podictionary Word of the Day”
  1. Luke Distelhorst says:

    A note,

    In quoting Pliny you use the English word, “prevarication.” The correct Latin is actually, “praevaricari,” at least according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

  2. Interesting view on prevarication!

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