April 11, 2007


prevaricate v. The verb prevaricate, says Pliny, was first applied to men who ploughed crooked ridges, and afterwards to men who gave crooked answers in the law courts, or deviated from the straight line of truth.--Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894.

prevaricate: v. To deviate from the truth; to speak equivocally[1] or evasively; to quibble; loosely, to lie.--Merriam-Webster's International Dictionary, Third Ed.
[1] Not quite sure about the meaning of equivocate? Here's a definition: "to avoid committing oneself in words; to speak evasively; to willfully mislead; to use words with double meanings."--Webster 3. In colloquial terms it means "double talk" or "to talk out of both sides of one's mouth."

Having read definitions of
prevaricate from Brewer's Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's 3rd, let's see what the OED has to say:

: To behave evasively or indecisively so as to delay action; to procrastinate.--The Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition. http://dictionary.oed.com).



We could say that, metaphorically speaking, prevaricate stands like a vending machine stocked with a variety of dictionary synonyms. Each auditor of the word
, given his or her personal history with the word, selects accordingly--some judging it to mean indecision; others--delay; some--evasion; others--doubletalk; some--telling a lie, and still others--a specific combination of synonyms. A rare few know the word's full complexity. And the remaining haven't a clue.

To discern which
nuances of prevaricate are at play when a particular person uses it, we have to investigate several contexts: the sense of the language surrounding the word, the expectations of the occasion, and the probable motivations of the speaker and of the audience. We have to discern, in other words, the user's rhetorical circumstances.


Before observing prevaricate in play, let's consider one more definition of the word, an openly "slanted" one:

prevaricate: long-winded, soft sounding, Latinized "lie." "Prevaricate" and its related nouns prevarication and prevaricator, derive from the Latin praevaricari, meaning "to walk a crooked course" and, hence, to deviate from the straight path of truth.--Rawson's Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk: Being a Compilation of Linguistic Fig Leaves and Verbal Flourishes for Artful Users of the English Language. New York: Crown, 1981, p. 219.

("GLOSS"--dear, patient reader--is a new heading term in the blog. It means "text comprising commentary, interpretation, clarification." It replaces the pompous "Bloggin' John Comments.")
With the word "euphemisms" in the title of his book heralding his intentions, the author of our third definition, Hugh Rawson, sees prevaricate--as an example of euphemism.

In case you're uncertain about the meaning of euphemism, here,
to supply or refresh your memory, is as good an introduction to the word as I've ever seen, from page one of Rawson's book:
A [polite female] secretary complains that her boss is a pain in the derriere, an undertaker (or mortician) asks delicately where to ship the loved one. These are euphemisms--mild, agreeable, or roundabout words used in place of coarse, painful, or offensive ones. The term comes from the Greek eu, meaning "well" or "sounding good," and pheme "speech.
NOTE: We will return to euphemisms later in the post. For now, let's observe prevaricate in play.


Recently, Tim Russert, host of NBC News' "Meet the Press," put the following question to Senator Oren Hatch, the chairman of the U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
MR. RUSSET: Whether or not you agree or disagree that Mr. Gonzales has not told the truth in this situation, The National Review is saying he no
longer has the ability to lead the Justice Department. Would you be willing
to see him step aside now?
Senator Hatch responded, in part, as follows (with emphasis added in bold text):

SEN. HATCH: He’s appeared before the committee, he’s been a very bright guy, he’s done a very good job. . . . All I can say is this, Alberto Gonzales, you know, he’s the first Hispanic-American ever put in this high position. He is an honest man. My experience with him has been extensive. I have never seen him prevaricate, I have never seen him do anything that was wrong. In this particular case, he misstated, there’s no question about it. He was inaccurate, I don’t think there’s any question
about it. I think he’ll be the first to tell you that. But you can interpret things various ways, and I would wait until he testifies. He’ll have to answer some of these questions. And let’s give the man a fair—at least some fairness, a fair chance to be able to explain why this happened under his watch and he was not totally prepared to, to handle all the problems that came up. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17857501/ )


The Senator's rhetorical purpose here is to present himself as an honest, trustworthy person, hoping that by the dint of the [perceived] sincerity and
[apparently] sound reasoning of his words, he might dissuade others from rushing to judgment about the competency or culpability of Attorney General (AG) Gonzales' statements and actions. He asks that the beleagured AG be given a fair forum:
And let’s give the man a fair—at least some fairness, a fair chance to be able to explain why this happened under his watch and he was not totally prepared to, to handle all the problems that came up.
Were members of his audience to accept the Senator's sincerity, they might be willing to agree with the positive judgments he is making on the Attorney General's behalf. Senator Hatch believes the AG is "a very bright guy" and "an honest man" whom he
has never seen "do anything that was wrong." As he continues, the Senator wants to keep his gentle encomium of Mr. Gonzales untainted by any coarse words that might stick in his listeners' memories, the way a certain stark word--in a much more dramatic circumstance--once became lodged in America's collective memory the day President Richard Nixon tried to defend himself but, in effect, pejoratively branded himself forever with the five-letter word that concluded his forelorn assertion, "I am not a crook!"

But to remain honest, Senator Hatch has to admit that Attorney General General Gonzales
does have his faults, that he has "misstated, there’s no question about it. He was inaccurate. . . . "

Misstated can be read two ways--as a mere lapsus linguae, a verbal slip--or as a downright lie. To steer his audience toward "verbal slip," the Senator quickly adds the morally fault-free word inaccurate to his brief delineation the General's faults. At the end of his comments, the Senator adds a passing reference the AG's not being "
totally prepared . . . to handle all the problems that came up."

At this point, let's back up a bit. Just prior to using the troublesome word "misstated," Senator Hatch deftly set a generally positive moral frame for his comments by stating with a sweeping fillip, "
I have never seen (sic) him prevaricate."

If, at this point, the Senator had been, as Hugh Rawson might put it, more honest, he
would have said, "I have never heard the Attorney General tell a lie." And with that word choice he would have polluted the heretofore clear verbal waters with a word that is
"coarse, painful, or offensive." Instead, Senator Hatch deftly avoids anything unseemly by reaching for the euphemism prevaricate, a word that we have seen is highly variable in meaning and that Rawson sees as having a cloaking effect to anything morally amiss. (I'm perhaps straining here to make a point, but the worse words the Senator could have chosen (and he's far too fair-minded a man and too sophisticated a wordsmith to have done so) would have been, "Attorney General Gonzales is not a liar.")

In sum, Senator Hatch successfully presents his own ethos as being fair, wise, and non-judgmental and the Attorney General's ethos as being bright and honest, though at times given to misstatements and inaccuracites--but certainly not to prevarication.



For all his skill in making apt word choices--in particular, prevaricate, misstate, and inaccurate--Senator Hatch still has an underlying argument to promote: he wants his audience to believe that because Attorney General Gonzales has never told the Senator a lie in the past, he can't possible be telling lies now amid the kerfuffle about fired government prosecutors.

Some auditors of the Senator's observation may think his remarks are based on misplaced loyalty (to the AG or to the Administration that the AG serves), a loyalty which, in turn, serves up impediments to what logicians call "cogent reasoning." Such impediments might be wishfull thinking, self-deception, rationalization, or denial. Others might intuit that Senator Hatch has fallen under the influence of the informal fallacy of The Appeal to Ignorance, wherein
the absence of evidence for a claim is proof that the claim is false. Because Mr. Hatch can not prove the AG has prevaricated with him in the past, he is disinclined to believe the AG is prevaricating with us now.

We will have to wait for a sufficient critical mass of facts to appear before any of us can infer whether, during the years leading up to March of 2007, Senator Orren Hatch had allowed himself to become clouded in denial and wishful thinking about the AG's character and competance; allowed an informal fallacy to skew his deductive powers; or, conversely, been reading all along the political realities before him with apt, fair, precise consistency. We will also have to wait for further testimony before we can determine how Attorney General Gonzales will be perceived by the Congress and the nation--as either an honest yet politically and verbally inept AG or as a public servant who--in blunt, unequivocal, Rawsonian terms
--has been guilty of lying on the job.


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