Challenging Word of the Week: cavil

(KAV uhl) noun, verb

To cavil is to carp or quibble, to raise picayune, inconsequential, and usually irritating objections, to offer gratuitious criticisms, to find fault for the sake of finding fault. As a noun, a cavil is that sort of annoying trivial objection, a bit of pointless carping, that adds nothing but irritation. In Latin, cavillari means to “scoff” or “jeer,” the nouns cavilla and cavillatio mean “raillery” and a cavillator is a quibbler; cavilla gratia cavillae (like ars gratia artis, as it were). In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (Act III, Scene 1) there is a furious argument between Hotspur and Owen Glendower about the division of some land, and Hotspur cries:

I do not care: I’ll give thrice so much land
to any well-deserving friend:
But in way of a bargain, mark ye me,
I’ll cavil on the ninth part of a hair.

Note cavil on; nowadays it’s cavil at or cavil about. The Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke (1729-1797) condemned “cavilling pettifoggers and quibbling pleaders.” Lawyers are known to cavil tirelessly and endlessly at the terms of an agreement.

From the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House.

My example: In today’s White House, the press corps and Howard Dean cavil while the world burns. In being married to Hillary, former president Clinton was also known to have received cavillatio while in office.

I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it.

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