Spanish cavilar and English cavil both trace back to Latin cavillārī, whose meanings Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary gives as: ‘to practise jeering or mocking; to censure, criticise; to satirize in jest or earnest, to jest, etc.’ That dictionary then adds the extended senses that are the only ones English has borrowed: ‘to reason captiously, to use sophisms, to quibble.’ By contrast, in Spanish cavilar the meaning has turned positive: ‘to think about something intently or profoundly.’ It no longer matches any of the original Latin senses, but we won’t cavil about that turn toward the positive.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Yong Huang
    Nov 10, 2017 @ 10:43:53

    I’ve always wondered if there’s a systematic way to study sense development or semantic etymology. So far, etymology has been mostly a study of morphological and phonological changes in history.
    Short of that, individual word study is still interesting. For example, Why does English cavil become negative while Spanish cavilar positive?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 10, 2017 @ 11:01:52

      You raise an interesting question. My intuition (for right or wrong) is that no systematic way exists to study how the meanings of a word change. By ‘systematic’ I mean ‘predictable.’ Every change in pronunciation—which usually means every mistaken pronunciation—presumably begins with one person and then spreads to other speakers. For instance, some English speaker somewhere mistakenly pronounced mischievous as mischevious, and other people followed. Could we have predicted that mistake? Perhaps, based on influence from words like devious and previous, but not that the change would spread to other people. Likewise for meaning. The verb peruse, with its prefix indicating a sense of ‘through’ and therefore ‘thorough’ (the two prepositions are English doublets), originally meant ‘to read or study thoroughly’ but now has come to mean ‘to skim, to read quickly.’ Could we have predicted that change? I don’t think so.


  2. Jim R
    Nov 11, 2017 @ 13:49:00

    Could you do a post on Savory?


  3. shoreacres
    Nov 12, 2017 @ 11:52:56

    Your comment about Spanish cavilar turning positive reminds me of something I thought of weeks ago after some conversation on your other blog. I’d never considered that cleave has two opposite meanings: to split or separate, and to adhere, or join.

    I’ve seen at least a half dozen words used to describe the phenomenon. I suppose contronymn is the most common. Which descriptive term is favored these days?

    Tongue in cheek, I can’t resist suggesting that someone who approaches others with jeering, mockery, or an intent to quibble might be said to be acting cavilierly.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 12, 2017 @ 12:14:08

      And someone who acts “cavilierly” might be said to be riding a high horse.

      As your linked entry explains, the reason cleave has opposite meanings is that two unrelated words fell together phonetically. Sometimes a single word develops opposite meanings, as in the slang use of bad to mean ‘good.’ Another example, this time from standard English rather than slang, is the verb sanction, which can mean ‘to permit’ but also ‘to penalize.’


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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