Mea Culpa: no reason for a crooked walk – it will only cause delay

John Rentoul on questions of style and usage in last week’s Independent

Saturday 26 September 2020 23:20 BST
Putting things on the long finger didn’t make ET a prevaricator
Putting things on the long finger didn’t make ET a prevaricator (Universal Pictures)

In an editorial on the resurgence of coronavirus cases, we said that in the early stage of the epidemic in March, “vital time was lost somewhere in the Downing Street machinery”. Our conclusion was that “there can be no reason for prevarication now”. 

Thanks to Paul Edwards for pointing out this example of language changing. Prevarication has been confused with procrastination for so long that for many people it means putting off until later something that should be done now. As ever, though, The Independent should be wary of using a word in a new sense while there are many readers who think that usage is an error. 

To prevaricate used to mean to speak or act evasively, from the Latin for walking crookedly or deviating. While we often accuse the prime minister of prevarication, that was not what we meant this time. We were worried that he would delay taking the necessary action to curb the spread of the virus – “there can be no reason for hesitation now” might have been a better way of putting it. 

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