Wednesday, April 1, 2009


cavil [KAV-əl]
n. a trivial or frivolous objection
v. to raise trivial and irritating objections to

[From Latin cavillārī ("to jeer, scoff, quibble")]

The only thing I know to say about cavil is that it means the same thing as quibble, yet only the college-educated and beyond use the word cavil, while everyone will quibble now and then. What I think is most important in caviling is that the objection needs to be frivolous. Occassionally, writers will suggest someone's complaint is a cavil, when in reality they mean a serious or justifiable objection.

In Winston Churchill's biography of his ancestor, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough (see picture above), he writes about one of Marlborough's deputies, Sicco van Goslinga, who knew nothing about war or strategy, but was full of opinions on these matters, and raised objections when his superior, Marlborough, failed to follow Goslinga's advice:
Marlborough continued to coax and persuade the Pensionary Heinsus to grant him the necessary freedom to fight, without which he could only maneuver up to a fiasco. Geldermalsen had by this time returned to the army, apparently with Marlborough's consent. His colleague Goslinga continued to cavil and malign.

William F. Buckley here contends that federal spending supports special interests more than the common good. However, I think his usage of cavil is wrong. The objections he points to ought not be seen as trivial:
No one seems to cavil at the assumption that new laws are exactly that, obeisances to private interests. Targeted patronage can't be disguised when we are talking about a farm bill. Farmers are intended to benefit from farm bills. Steel tariffs are intended to help steel makers. What's new and disturbing is that political figures don't seem to cavil at linking legislation to "special interests."

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