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.