The Grammarphobia Blog

Evasive action

Q: I recently saw the word “tergiversate” in print, and it brought to mind an expression my father would use when he didn’t want us to dally: “don’t tergy-vergy.” Have you any thoughts about these terms or experiences with them?

A: As a matter of fact, we do have some experience of “tergiversate” – but not in English.

Years ago, when Pat was studying Italian, one of her favorite verbs was tergiversare, meaning to hesitate or evade or beat about the bush. This verb has stuck in her mind, while most of the other Italian has leaked away!

The English verb “tergiversate” has a stronger meaning: to change sides, desert one’s party, apostatize, equivocate, or evade.

It first appeared in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Edmund Gayton’s Pleasant Notes Upon Don Quixot (1654): “That tergiversating and back-sliding Lady.”

It was adopted into English from the Latin tergiversari (“to turn one’s back, shuffle, practise evasion”). The Latin roots are tergum (“back”) and vertere (“to turn”).

A noun, “tergiversation” (meaning forsaking, deserting, or turning one’s back), was first recorded in the 16th century. The OED describes it as an adaptation of the Latin noun tergiversionem.

We haven’t managed to find any information on the use of “tergy-vergy” as a loose slang version of “tergiversate.” Perhaps your father coined it.

We did, however, find a few vague references to a street language called “tergy wergy,” but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with apostasy or evasion.

And the online Urban Dictionary, whose users define slang terms, says a “tergy” is a blisterlike burn from a trampoline or object with a similar surface.

The dictionary, which is by no means authoritative, gives this example: “I scraped my toe on the trampoline and got a tergy.”

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