Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Caveat"

Laura C. of Wantage, N.J. writes in with today's Mailbag Friday question:

Co-workers keep using the word caveat around work and it's driving me crazy. People will say, "This is a great plan, but the caveat is..." (meaning 'the hook or catch is...'). Sometimes they'll use it as a transitive verb: "Let's caveat that proposed media spend." Is this really acceptable?

As we've seen before, the "verbing" of nouns can often provoke extremely negative reactions, especially when used as corporate jargon. The fact that many "denominal verbs" (verbs formed from nouns) have distinguished pedigrees in English doesn't detract from their irksomeness in current usage. In a previous Mailbag Friday, I noted one such example: the jargony-sounding verb dialogue goes back to the early 17th century and has been used by Shakespeare, Pope, and Coleridge, among others.

Caveat too has a history as a verb long preceding modern-day boardrooms. In fact, the Latin root is itself a form of a verb: specifically, a subjunctive form of cavere 'to beware' that translates as 'let him beware.' We still use it in a few lingering Latin expressions: caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), caveat lector (let the reader beware), and occasionally caveat venditor (let the seller beware).

The Latin verb entered English as a noun as early as the mid-16th century, with a number of senses related to caution. In the legal arena, it has been used specifically to refer to "a formal notice filed with a court or officer to suspend a proceeding until filer is given a hearing." More generally, it's just "a warning against certain acts." In more recent usage, caveat might be better glossed as "a cautionary qualification."

In the early days of the English noun, caveat got pressed into service as a verb as well. Like the noun, it had a specific legal meaning ("to enter a caveat") and a more general sense of warning. In 1661, the Marquess of Argyll, leader of Scottish interests during the English Civil War, said the following in a speech shortly before being executed for treason:

And it passes the power of all the magistrates under heaven to absolve them from the oath of God; they deceive themselves, and it may be, would deceive others that think otherwise. But I would caveat this; people will be ready to think this kind of institution to rebellion in me; but they are very far wrong that think religion and loyalty are not well consistent.

This transitive use of caveat to mean "to qualify with a warning" didn't last, however: the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (in an entry written about a century ago) marks it as obsolete. But in the late twentieth century, the Marquess of Argyll's usage saw a revival of sorts — particularly in American military and governmental circles.

The first big splash made by the modern transitive verb caveat came in late 1980, when Ronald Reagan's nominee for Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, had his Senate confirmation hearings. Haig made it through the confirmation process, but his denominal verbs attracted much attention. The New York Times commented:

The only thing the Democrats got on him was a painful use of English ("Not in the way you've contexted it" or "I'll have to caveat my answer on that, Senator").

In his "On Language" column in the Times, William Safire proclaimed, "A new linguistic form called 'haigravation' is rearing its head in Washington. It is the tendency of the new Secretary of State to change the state of parts of speech." Despite the derision that Haig faced for "caveating his answers," transitive caveat only grew in usage after his Senate hearings. (In a bit of apparent self-deprecation, the book that Haig wrote in 1984 about his brief, tempestuous tenure as Secretary of State was entitled Caveat.)

Now that the verb caveat has made the leap from military types like Haig into America's corporate culture, it continues to arouse scornful reactions. Constance Hale, in Sin and Syntax, calls the Haig-esque use of caveat "flat-footed." Ben Yagoda, in When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, deems this shift from noun to verb "lame in a stiff bureaucraticky way."

So even though denominal verbs like caveat have roots in the English of centuries past, their modern usage strikes many ears as grating. If you're a corporate caveater (caveatter?), please heed this warning: cool it with the caveats, or your co-workers just might throw caution to the wind and throttle you.

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Ben Zimmer 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:

Friday August 14th 2009, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
Not having read any of the above books, which probably discuss this, I wondered what makes these words grate? What makes them seem so lame? If I saw such a word for the first time in a poem I think I would perceive it as creative. It would be a fresh use of language that would intensify the moment. The word would call attention to itself and not just slip by in the crowd. Perhaps it is in a word's transition period, when it is no longer fresh but neither has it been around long enough to pass unnoticed, that, like a tired saying, it irks.
Friday August 14th 2009, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Good article. I imagine the problem you are actually having is of a few people around you who use the word too often. I never have this experience, for example.

(Wightly: Well-spoken comment! Intelligent observations!)
Friday August 14th 2009, 12:26 PM
Comment by: James K. (Lewiston, ID)
The primary motivation of this complaint likely goes no further than friction among the tetonic plates of the common American workplace: ego driven ambition and shallow relationships. Ok, that was a bit narcissistic but it's certainly true in many cases. On behalf of the cause of self-preservation, "Don't sweat the small stuff". Nonetheless it made for an interesting article...
Friday August 14th 2009, 5:13 PM
Comment by: Belinda J.
Caveat hasn't ever bothered me much. I'll tell you one that irks. I just saw it today. "Incentivize." Apparently it means offering incentives to improve performance, as in "Let's incentivize the new business proposal process." I don't care how common it is, I hate it when people add -ize to the end of a noun and call it a verb. I'm adding it to the corporate lingo bingo card right now. (I'm working on a special edition just for government bureaucrats.)

And if I ever see "incentivize" in a poem, I'll probably stop reading poetry. Not that I ever read much of it anyway...
Friday August 14th 2009, 8:09 PM
Comment by: James K. (Lewiston, ID)
I had a U.S. History teacher who was the worst, he would add crazy made up words to his lectures to sound intelligent but never really pulled it off.
Sunday August 16th 2009, 5:15 AM
Comment by: Daryl P.
The Australian author Don Watson has written two interesting books along these lines; Death Sentence is one and Weasel Words the other.
Sunday August 16th 2009, 6:02 PM
Comment by: wandev (Montgomery, AL)
Liked the article and all the comments. Don't mind "caveat" properly used, do NOT like "caveat" as a verb; however, I've never heard it used that way. Maybe I am blessed with friends and work acquaintances who know how to use the English language!
Monday August 17th 2009, 9:02 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I tend to not like the slip-shod use of language for the purpose of sounding like something you're not.
Great thoughts, Ben.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 8:17 PM
Comment by: wandev (Montgomery, AL)
Good point, Roger!

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