prevarication à la mode

The theme today is "issues my Italian colleague, La Lettrice, has raised in the past (BrE) fortnight / (AmE) two weeks". While at first glance these are very different topics, they have a nice symmetry about them. Each case involves English doing something strange with an item that comes from a Romance language. In one case Americans have committed the weirdness, in the other it's the British.

First off, we have à la mode. When LL lived in the US, she thought it hilarious (and still does) that a French phrase meaning 'in the current fashion' could come to mean 'with ice cream', as it does in AmE in pie à la mode or pancakes à la mode (as ordered in the recent and wonderful film Little Miss Sunshine). A situation involving ice cream may also be described as à la mode in AmE:
One item on the Blue Bunny ice cream parlor menu, however, has never been purchased. It's called Sock Hop a la Mode.
You and 25 of your friends can rock around the clock at a sock hop at the ice cream parlor, complete with '50s music, decorations and all the ice cream sodas and treats you can eat. --USA Today, 25 July 2003
So, how did à la mode come to mean 'with ice cream'? Various stories circulate, but the most 'official' of these is that Charles Watson Townsend introduced pie à la mode to Delmonico's restaurant in New York (having dubbed a pie thusly at an upstate restaurant) in the 1890s, and it took off. You can read more of that version of the story here.

So, that's Americans doing strange things with a French phrase. Now we come to the British doing odd things with a Latinate word. LL e-mailed me (BrE) in/(AmE) during the week to ask whether prevaricate really means 'to hesitate' in English. Knowing the cognate Italian word, LL believed the word to mean 'to evade or deviate from the truth'. That's what I believed the word to mean too, until I encountered it as used by my UK students, who use it as a synonym for procrastinate. This meaning is not considered to be standard--and many dictionaries do not record it, but some (e.g. Penguin) and some style guides acknowledge that the sense is 'out there' in BrE mouths and minds, and try to fight against it.

Incidentally, prevarication, i.e. using a communication system to deceive, is one of the Design Features of Language--that is, one of the hallmarks indicating that a communication system is a language.


  1. The misuse of prevaricate is rather recent and probably a small tell-tale of the collapse of schooling. What's your excuse for "thusly"?

  2. There may be other oddities about the American interpretation of Continental cookery terms, Lynne. I'm thinking about what Americans seem to assume is 'French dressing', 'Italian dressing' and 'Italian sausages', which are possibly no more authentic than 'American pizzas' are when bought from British supermarkets.

    And what about 'salsa verde'? In America, it is a Mexican condiment which is being talked about, while in Europe, it is usually the Italian one (the actual term happens to be identical in both the Spanish and Italian languages - but the respective recipes use different ingredients.)

    Also, 'entrée' seems to have a meaning different in America from what it has in Europe. Who's right? Since the term is a French one, I'd suggest that the American usage is based upon yet another misapprehension of French culinary terms.

  3. > Now we come to the British doing odd things with a Latinate word.

    Well, it does not appear to me to be a weirdness confined to these gale-swept isles! :-)

    It is discussed here: .

    The above site appears to me to be American. If all Americans are clear as to the meaning of 'prevaricate', why should there be a need for an American site (unless it has a missionary zeal to the teach English to the British!) to explain the difference between 'prevaricate' and 'procrastinate'? ;-)

  4. > What's your excuse for "thusly"?

    I also am keen to learn your answer to this one!

  5. La lettrice italiana may want to know that in “When Harry Met Sally” the translators avoided translating “à la mode”. So when Sally orders “apple pie à la mode” in the Italian script we only find “torta di mele/apple pie”, but then the translators had to translate “I don’t want the ice cream on top”, and this led the Italian audience (me, at least) to believe that in the US apple pie is always served with ice cream.

  6. I'm reminded in your aside about 'in/during the week' that we in Yorkshire, when asked, for example, what time we work, answer '9 while 5'. It has no rhyme or reason.

  7. I’d suggest that the new use of prevaricate isn’t a misuse but a development. It’s like the way that mistrust has stopped meaning to trust mistakenly and, instead, is now synonymous with distrust. Stuff like that happens, though it’s a shame when it means we lose a useful word. Dictionaries can try to fight against such change but language is a living thing. A dictionary of BrE which doesn’t have at least a slang-meaning of aggravate which embraces physical threat is out of touch.

    My (mis)use of prevaricate isn’t mainly as a synonym of procrastinate. Although it does have a putting-off-till-later aspect to it, it means (in Danonese) to avoid answering a question and is therefore very useful in political reporting.

    This new meaning of à la mode gives a whole new (and chilling) significance to Marriage à-la-Mode.

  8. I have always assumed that the use of a la mode in this way came not from a la mode meaning fashionable or 'in the current fashion', but as a contraction of a la mode de xxx, as in, for example, tripes a la mode de Caen meaning tripe prepared in the way that they traditionally prepare it in the said town.

    I have, however, no evidence for this assertion, so I'm not sure why I mention it, other than perhaps because it may be marginally more useful than speculating on why the French should have any reputation for culinary expertise when they can't even make toast.

  9. Dearieme, thusly is a fine word. There isn't already a word that means the same thing (only phrases), and people have been using it since the 19th century. The OED lists it as 'colloq(uial)', the AHD acknowledges that it has 'gained some currency in educated use'. I love it, and it makes me happy.

    The shift in understanding of prevaricate is not as easy to love, as it does lead to misunderstanding. Here we have a word that some people are using to mean one thing, and others are using to mean another. This is not the case for thusly, which has only ever had one meaning.

    As for whether the 'procrastinate' sense of prevaricate is British or not: (a) I've taught about prevarication (as a design feature of language) since 1993, on three continents. In the US and South Africa, I'd have to tell the students what it meant, as it was an unfamiliar word. In the UK, I've learned that it is a familiar word to some of my students--but with the 'procrastinate' meaning, so I have to teach them the original meaning. (b) I'm not the only person who's noticed it as a British thing. (c) That a US-based guide includes it as a "confusing word" may indicate that the guide is using British as well as American sources, or trying to appeal to an international audience. No American dictionaries I've check include that sense or give any caution about the use of the word.

  10. Correcting myself before someone else does:

    OK, so there is a single word that means what thusly means--it's thus, of course. But to me, adverbial use of thus results in sentences that sound like they haven't finished: I did it thus. Yeah? You did it, thus what?

  11. In my book, I did it thus is fine, if a bit pompous. To this BrE-speaker, the ly in thusly sounds tautological and a bit arch, like saying He drove the car fastly, but usage is usage and BrEs can't decide how AmEs should speak.

    BTW, I spy another Blogger-generated verification code for the SBACL festive word-auction: nuqxycot, Iniut for a self-rocking sled-based mobile baby-carriage, ideal for cross-tundra migration. $50 (Canadian).

  12. > (b) I'm not the only person who's noticed it as a British thing.

    (Is the underlined part of your post a hyperlink? I don't seem to be able to follow it.)

    Just to be pedantic for a moment, does the number of people saying a thing necessarily make that thing true? For example, at a meeting of the Flat Earth Society, 99% of the participants asserted that the Earth is flat. Does this mean that it is in fact flat?

    But if the "appeal to number of people saying a thing" tactic is permissable, I could reply that the source I quoted is 'not the only' American attempt to point out the correct use of 'prevaricate', if you go a-googling. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English is apparently one such.

  13. OK, Howard, I'll rephrase my (b) as: I'm not the only American who has heard it from the British, but not from Americans.

  14. Many of my out-links from yesterday seem not to be working. Here's the one in which someone else comments upon the Britishness of prevaricate='procrastinate':

    "Julian Taylor, I appreciated your post, but can anyone tell me why the British, including the subeditors of the major British newspapers, are so illiterate about the distinction between prevaricate and procrastinate? Interviewers on the BBC are equally ignorant. It's like an infection that runs through the bloodstream of the British media. I've never read or heard this ignorant usage in the American media." Posted by Verity at April 3, 2005 03:34 PM

    There's also a discussion of it in the American Dialect Society archives in which a bit from soc.motss is quoted in which someone else says: "I notice that the BBC uses "prevaricate" in places where most North Americans of the english speaking type would
    employ "procrastinate," or perhaps "dither.""

  15. > I'm not the only American who has heard it from the British, but not from Americans.

    I should not want to appear to be accusing you of prevarication, Lynne(! :-)), but presumably The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (and other references I have found) has heard it from Americans, otherwise why would it try to fix what ain't broke? It doesn't seem to say that it is a typically British mistake, and its title claims that it is a guide to Standard American English, not to any other type of English, or to mistakes made in any other type of English.

  16. The thing about reference sources is that they have a known tendency to plagiari{s/z}e each other. So, I'm not surprised that something that's in Fowler's (and not marked as BrE there) is found in AmE guides. (And, of course, there's no harm in warning people not to use a word a certain way if they're not already using it that way.) At the same time, the otherwise similar (in terms of what they do usage notes for) American Heritage Dictionary and Oxford Dictionary of English differ, with only the latter mentioning the 'procrastinate' use of prevaricate.

    So, I'm still convinced that it's a BrE thing--and no Americans have stood up here to say that they use it that way (she says, inviting disaster). But if you're not, that's fine--I'm going to stop trying to convince you!

  17. > So, I'm still convinced that it's a BrE thing

    I don't dispute that it is a mistake made in Britain. What I do dispute is that it is a mistake confined to Britain.

    A little light googling this afternoon showed me examples from Canada, Australia, S.A., India, N.Z. and the USA.

    Here is one from the USA:

    '"Once a company has determined that it wants to seek new counsel, and has done some corporate soul-searching to make sure its reasons are sound, McKeown recommends setting a date and sticking to it. "People often prevaricate and put it off," he notes. "If you're unhappy, then don't draw it out."'

    I am pretty sure that site is American, and it seems certain to me from the context that by 'prevaricate' Mr McKeown means 'procrastinate'.

    That is one example. I could provide others if you like. But one single example is surely enough to demolish the proposition that the mistake is exclusively British?

  18. i have only one referencable instance of ever having heard the word 'prevaricate', this is in that oh so british animation 'Wallace and Gromit - the Wrong Trousers' in which Wallace says at the breakfast table 'well, there's no use prevaricating about the bush'. although clearly this is a silly mishmash of 'prevaricating' and 'beating about the bush' perhaps it goes some way to explaining my generation's (i'm english and 20) misunderstanding?!?!?!
    also, i agree that thusly is tautological. thus does its job admirably without excess suffixes.

  19. >>>>I am pretty sure that site is American, and it seems certain to me from the context that by 'prevaricate' Mr McKeown means 'procrastinate'<<<<

    The site is American, no doubt, but whence hails Mr McKeown?

  20. I was sure that I'd heard of some kind Thatcher prevarication/ procrastination debacle round the time of the Falklands war. (Actually I thought I mighta heard it from you, Lynne, in some seminar or something, but maybe not.) I googled it and refreshed my memory: In 1981 Maggie caused a stir when she used the BrE/ wrong use of prevaricate about her perception of General Galtieri of Argentina's intentions. It was just before the war and I gather it was not particularly helpful. (That was 25 years ago, and Thatcher was hardly a spring chicken even then, so I don't think the youth of today can have the blame foisted onto them for destroying everything this time.)

  21. > The site is American, no doubt, but whence hails Mr McKeown?

    From Ireland, apparently, to my chagrin! But at least it is another non-British place I can add to my list, in support of the fact that the mistake is not uniquely a 'British thing'!

    What would be interesting would be to find out where Elizabeth Millard, the writer of the article I quoted, comes from. If she is from the USA, we might wonder why she (or indeed the presumably American sub-editors of that on-line journal) did not correct Mr McKeown's misuse.

    However, I have a number of other examples of Americans misusing 'prevaricate'. How about this one:

    "[...] that when we encounter problems or dilemmas action is immediately required. We cannot delay, prevaricate, hesitate, withdraw, or take a moment. Hesitation, as such, is perceived as a form of weakness and indecision. [...] Would it not have been wiser to prevaricate when the solution of invading Iraq was proposed as 'the only viable answer' to the dilemma presented by a dictator and his regime? Would a little of indecision spared more than a little life?"

    ( )

    Now, I can't prove for certain that the Mr Peckinpaugh is an American without seeing his birth certificate, but his profile at

    seems to suggest he is not British (nor Irish!) I think he's probably American, don't you?

    And there are yet other examples, but I suspect Lynne will close down this correspondence before I bore you further!

  22. Howard, I'm not going to close down the correspondence, but, as I've said I'm giving up on it.
    I can give you examples of Americans saying flat to mean 'apartment' and pronouncing schedule with a soft "sh", but that's not going to change the fact that, on the whole, flat and "shedule" are Briticisms. It's also the case that I usually make only BrE vs AmE claims here, and leave it to commenters to make notes on Canadian English, Irish English, Australian English and the like--they're outside my brief as a blogger.

    I'm just going to note, with my usual amusement, that it's often very difficult to convince people that changes to the language that result in "non-standard" forms (used by otherwise "standard" English speakers) are not always Americans' fault.

  23. >>>I was sure that I'd heard of some kind Thatcher prevarication/ procrastination debacle round the time of the Falklands war... I googled it and refreshed my memory: In 1981 Maggie caused a stir when she used the BrE/ wrong use of prevaricate about her perception of General Galtieri of Argentina's intentions<<<

    Have you any links for that, Ally? I heard a similar story once but have been unable to trace it online.

  24. I did find this (nb it's a link to a word document) and this, but that's it so I'm not completely sure if it's not all just some kind of urban myth. (I found those by googling 'falklands prevaricate' and 'thatcher prevaricate' respectively, both with no quotes.)

  25. Thanks, ally. So it seems to have been an internal English matter. I had assumed it was a translation problem as the cognates in Spanish and other languages mean something quite different.

  26. Chiming in rather late, but I've only just discovered your blog, I (Southern English, rapidly approaching my half century) wouldn't use 'prevaricate' to mean 'deceive' or 'procrastinate'. To me it means to refuse to give a definite answer/commit oneself or to dither.

  27. The just-updated OED3 takes it upon itself to call the 'procrastinate' meaning of prevaricate "now the usual sense", but this definitely does not apply to AmE, where it does occur but is still seen as a slip or solecism. None of NID3, MWC11, and AHD4 list it.

    Apparently the semantic evolution is 'transgress' > 'equivocate' > 'lie by equivocation' > 'equivocate in order to delay' > 'delay', where the first two senses are now obsolete.

    This is a particularly nasty US/UK problem, since Americans aren't normally aware of the alternative sense, and Britons don't realize that they may be perceived as calling someone a liar when in fact they are only complaining of delay.


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