Printable Version
Pronunciation: -vêl Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive

Meaning: To quibble, to wrangle over trivial details, especially over things that cause displeasure.

Notes: This Good Word is intransitive, that is to say, it cannot take a direct object; in other words, you can't cavil anything. (There was a transitive form that is now obsolete.) It does accept objects of the prepositions over, at, and about, to cavil over/at/about the price of eggs in China. Someone who cavils is a caviler (or a caviller outside the US) and the occupation is caviling (or cavilling outside the US). For an adjective you can use a Romance language variant, cavillous, or a native English one, cavilsome, which has unjustifiably been ignored since the 17th century.

In Play: Caviling implies overlooking much larger issues: "Chester Draurs spent $18,000 for his motorcycle, but he will cavil with a station attendant over the price of a quart of oil." All English speakers know that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth, so this would appall any of us: "When her father gave Lucy Lastik a new car for her birthday, she caviled at its color."

Word History: Today's good word is another product of French. The verb caviller devolved peacefully to French from Latin cavillari "to jeer, poke fun", a verb from cavilla "jeering". Cavilla is akin to Latin calvi "to trick", which is the ultimate origin of English calumny. In English we would expect that initial [k] sound to show up as [h] and there was an Old English word, holian "to slander", that didn't make it through to us. Kelein "to beguile" is the Greek offspring of the same etymological line.

Dr. Goodword,

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