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The short definition would equate caviling to complaining, or whining, or generally making a fuss. But it’s a little more specific than that. It’s a particular kind of bellyaching, one that focuses on minutiae.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) quotes Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), that great British lexicographer, as defining “caviling” as the act of raising “captious and frivolous objections.” And so a “cavil,” as a noun, is just such a carping comment.
The OED says that it was first used (as a verb) in the 16th century, in English, but also that it comes from the Old French “caviller,” meaning “to mock, jest [or] rail,” from the Latin “cavilāri,” meaning “to practice jeering or mocking.” There’s no real relation to “cavalier,” in case you were wondering. Digging into the Latin a little more, we find that “cavalla” referred to “jeering, scoffing [or] raillery.”
Merriam-Webster points out the similarities “cavil” has to “calumny” (basically any kind of slander or libel intended to damage someone’s reputation), in that both may be descendants of the Latin “calvi,” meaning “to deceive,” and the Greek “kēlein,” meaning “to beguile.”
A second word with broadly similar insinuations is “captious,” an adjective that the OED defines as tending to “catch at faults or take exception to actions; [or] disposed to find fault.” Like “calumny” and “cavil,” this word came into more common use by the 1500s.
An early example of how “cavil” was used can be found in the first part of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” when Hotspur declares how “in the way of bargain, mark ye me, I’ll cavil on the ninth part of a hair.” Since this is one of the Bard’s earlier plays, it is safe to say that it was written in the 1590s.
That’s definitely one way to split hairs (an expression, incidentally, probably coming down to us from that same period). I’d urge you to refrain from caviling unnecessarily, or from casting calumnies of a captious nature on your friends! If you have any word ideas or questions for me, for next time, please send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next week, take care.
Reach columnist Will Mari at email@example.com. Twitter: @willthewordguy
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