• cavil •
kæ-vêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive
Meaning: To quibble, to wrangle over trivial details, especially over things that cause displeasure.
Notes: This Good Word is intransitive, that is to say, it cannot take a direct object; in other words, you can't cavil anything. (There was a transitive form that is now obsolete.) It does accept objects of the prepositions over, at, and about, to cavil over/at/about the price of eggs in China. Someone who cavils is a caviler (or a caviller outside the US) and the occupation is caviling (or cavilling outside the US). For an adjective you can use a Romance language variant, cavillous, or a native English one, cavilsome, which has unjustifiably been ignored since the 17th century.
In Play: Caviling implies overlooking much larger issues: "Chester Draurs spent $18,000 for his motorcycle, but he will cavil with a station attendant over the price of a quart of oil." All English speakers know that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth, so this would appall any of us: "When her father gave Lucy Lastik a new car for her birthday, she caviled at its color."
Word History: Today's good word is another product of French. The verb caviller devolved peacefully to French from Latin cavillari "to jeer, poke fun", a verb from cavilla "jeering". Cavilla is akin to Latin calvi "to trick", which is the ultimate origin of English calumny. In English we would expect that initial [k] sound to show up as [h] and there was an Old English word, holian "to slander", that didn't make it through to us. Kelein "to beguile" is the Greek offspring of the same etymological line.
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