Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Procrastination": Let's Not Shilly-Shally!

Welcome to "Word Routes," a new column where your fearless editor will chart a course through a sea of words. We'll be looking at how new words emerge on the scene and how older ones have changed over time. Think of it as a series of dispatches from the frontlines of our dynamic and ever-shifting language. Often we'll focus on a single word or phrase and tease apart the layers of meaning and usage, with the Visual Thesaurus wordmaps providing special insight. First up is a word near and dear to my heart: procrastination.

The online magazine Slate asked me to provide a history of the word for this week's special issue on procrastination (you can read it here). I jumped at the chance to write on the topic, since I've been battling the bugbear of procrastination for as long as I can remember. I had an enjoyable time researching the word back to its Latin roots (from the verb procrastinare, combining pro- 'forward' + crastinus 'of tomorrow') and looking for equivalents in other languages. But naturally, when it came time to write the piece, I found myself putting it off to the last minute and burning the midnight oil! It makes perfect sense that writing about procrastination would bring out the procrastinator in me.

That's actually something of a running joke in the field of procrastination studies. When Piers Steel of the University of Calgary was reviewing the literature on procrastination, he found several references to a 1971 book by Paul Ringenbach called Procrastination through the ages: A definitive history. Steel spent weeks hunting down the book, helped by professional librarians. He eventually discovered that Ringenbach never actually wrote the book. In fact, he never even started it, since the whole thing was an elaborate prank. As Ringenbach explained to a researcher who uncovered the ruse, a true procrastinator would never be able to complete a "definitive history"! Fortunately my piece for Slate was far from definitive, so I was able to finish it eventually.

One finding I made is that it's surprisingly difficult to find terms in other languages that map onto the English word procrastination, except when procrastination itself has been borrowed and adapted. Even in English, no other item in the lexicon really does the trick, as the wordmap for procrastination illustrates. One sense of the word given is "slowness as a consequence of not getting around to it," with the closest synonym being dilatoriness. Being dilatory implies delaying, dawdling, and dilly-dallying (how alliterative), but it doesn't quite capture the postponement of important tasks like procrastination. That's covered more adequately by the other sense provided in the wordmap: "putting off an action to a later time." The nearby synonyms for that sense are cunctation and shilly-shally — not exactly words you hear every day! Shilly-shally more commonly appears as a verb and can be found in the wordmap for procrastinate, along with its soundalike dilly-dally. But you might not know that shilly-shally has also been used historically as a noun meaning "procrastination," as in George Eliot's Middlemarch: "when disease in general was called by some bad name, and treated accordingly without shilly-shally."

And now that "Word Routes" has officially been launched, I pledge to bring you further installments from the world of words without shilly-shally.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 14th 2008, 12:44 PM
Comment by: Charles Hodgson (Ottawa Canada)
A note on shilly-shally.

This to me is a common word not because I procrastinate but because it is the name of a small cabin maintained in a wilderness park just to the north of Ottawa Canada. I cross country ski and mountain bike past it regularly. In winter it is a welcome refuge.

Having never thought much about the meaning of the name I now see in the OED and American Heritage Dictionary that its etymology is from

"shall I, shall I?"

a hesitating mantra if ever there was one.

To see a picture of the cabin visit http://charles-hodgson.com/shillyshally.htm
Wednesday May 14th 2008, 5:37 PM
Comment by: Barbara Z. (Norfolk, VA)
I suspect that the cabin's name is a play on the word "Chalet." Sort of like the ones at the beach that have names like "Dunworkin" or "Playa While".
Friday May 23rd 2008, 8:49 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
This article has inspired me to to develop a philosophical mini-movement around procrastination.

In your piece in Slate, you wrote "[Procrastination] implies an intentional avoidance of important tasks, putting off unpleasant responsibilities that one knows should be taken care of right away and setting them on the back burner for another day."

This inspired me to re-think procrastination in a very different way than is generally deployed in our vernacular. I now see the positives of procrastination, and see it more in the conceptual framework of strategic optimism.

In teasing this phrase apart, "strategic" represents the intentional planning of activities to a personally more desirable and/or emotionally feasible time frame. And, "optimism" represents the strongly held belief that not only will there certainly be a tomorrow, but, in addition, that tomorrow will somehow consist of enough time, or be more optimal in some way, to deal with the things that simply did not make the cut today.

Allow me to further bolster this mini-movement with an analogy we can all relate to: We all know that great chefs rely heavily on the back burners of their stove tops to properly prepare meals. Yes, the idea of putting things on the back burner implies that this is an experienced professional at work, knowing exactly what needs to go on the back burner, and when, in order to ensure maximum cooking efficiency within the parameters of space and time.

A procrastinator, then, is a master of prioritization and a skilled professional, armed with a clear vision of how to best attain the intended outcome.

Jon, (now a proud) procrastinator
Saturday May 24th 2008, 7:19 AM
Comment by: Betje K.
Reading paragraph three about debunking the ruse of the "definitive history" of procrastination delighted me so much that I took a moment (before returning to my mss) to send a copy to my favorite procrastinator and editor ... an activity justifiable now that I learn that sharing such joy in words is an activity of priority that contributes to creating "an emotionally feasible time frame." Cheers to all, B.K.
PS In the same vein as "chalet" and "shall I", tradition explains the name of a Texas town called "Elgin," pronounced with a hard "g." It came from a time when it was necessary for the conductor to yell "git down; we're going through Hell agin'" (soon to be written "ellgin"). When the railroad first crossed an area of shippers and bandits they thought they could prevent competition from the efficient new method of transportation by shooting from horseback into the windows of the speeding trains creating "Hell agin and agin."

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If you like "dilly-dally" and "shilly-shally," you'll love Orin's look at reduplication.