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.

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

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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Daphne's tips for confronting procrastination's cousin, writer's block.
Sometimes waiting to start on a project is just a sign of useful cogitation.
Bonbon Mots
If you like "dilly-dally" and "shilly-shally," you'll love Orin's look at reduplication.