There's a lot of motivation here. It boils down to a two-part question: is the usage of 'prevarication' as a synonym for 'vacillation' common, acceptable, and/or preferable; and is there any reason that it might crop up particularly often in the history of Austria and Germany?

I am currently reading Max Hastings's Catastrophe 1914, which I am very much enjoying, except for this usage, which jars me. Some example quotes:

Russia's prevarications about the exact pattern of its mobilisation were almost certainly irrelevant to the European outcome.

But if German policy had vacillated earlier in July, now the march to war had attained its own momentum. In Berlin on the 29th, Falkenhayn sought to force the pace: he declared that the time for prevarication was over ….

Gallieni fumed at the prevarications of bureaucrats, who seemed incapable of adjusting from the tempo of peace to that of extreme national peril ….

Unfortunately, this book isn't previewed on Google Books, so you'll have to take my word that the surroundings make it clear that 'prevarication' here is not meant to refer to deception, but rather to what I think of as vacillation. Note particularly the second quote, where 'vacillation' is even used in the previous sentence, to describe the behaviour the time for which was over. For an example sentence with more context, and also to note that this usage is not peculiar to Hastings, see https://books.google.com/books?id=9Y0osRlmQcIC&pg=PP47#q=prevaricate:

Some officials and politicians thought that Hitler would continue to prevaricate ….

(Here you really probably will want to check the context to verify that it is not a reference to prevarication as deception, in which Hitler certainly engaged wantonly.)

To my shock, when I went to the OED to back up my distaste with this usage, I found it saying very much the contrary (http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/151057#eid112455102):

3b. To behave evasively or indecisively so as to delay action; to procrastinate. Now the usual sense.

However, a hallway survey of several colleagues produced the uniform reaction "no, that's not what it means at all!"; and I noticed that the second quote is clearly about Nazism, while the first refers to—I don't know what, but clearly some conflict involving Austria. So, I am back to the question at the beginning: is this usage really 'usual', and is there any reason that it seems to crop up so often in the history of Austria and Germany?

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    I really do not understand your issue; prevaricate is to lie and vacillate is to be indecisive. The two terms are not "related". As for historical interpretation, I am no historian but I do not understand what your distaste is about: Russia was lying (prevaricating about its positions); Germany was vacillating - hadn't decided definitively to invade or not, I assume.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 21:25
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    @Lambie, my issue is that your first sentence ("prevaricate is to lie and vacillate is to be indecisive") accords with my understanding, but not with the OED definition or the quoted sentences. In all of them, prevarication refers not to deception, but to indecision. (I agree that the lack of context makes the 'deception' interpretation plausible, but reading the surrounding text—which it seems to exceed fair use to quote—makes it clear that that is not what is meant.)
    – LSpice
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 21:26
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    @Lambie, it is not the first meaning (in fact it is (3b), as indicated). However, the OED certainly does say that the definition I have quoted is "now the usual sense". (You can check the link if you doubt it—as I do, despite having checked and quoted it myself!)
    – LSpice
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 21:28
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    @Lambie, I believe that the context reveals that "It is to contrast prevarication (lying by deception) with vacillation (being indecisive)" is not true. It may be useful to check the context in Google Books of the last quote (from Overy, not Hastings), where it is very clear that the reference is to Hitler's indecision, not to his (ample) practice of deception.
    – LSpice
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 21:40
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    I don't see the OED (3b) as pure indecision, it was evasive or indicisive with a desired outcome of delay. I might vacillate only because I'm torn about the result. So I might vacillate to prevaricate, but it wouldn't work the other way around. But this equine is necrodestined.
    – SteveRacer
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 1:39

1 Answer 1


Regarding the first part of your question:

is the usage of 'prevarication' as a synonym for 'vacillation' common, acceptable, and/or preferable?

The two words are not synonymous, so to use them as synonyms is very uncommon, generally unacceptable and certainly not preferable.

Prevaricate -- ODO
Speak or act in an evasive way:
*'he seemed to prevaricate when journalists asked pointed questions'

[examples of "prevarication":]
'Even so, he has continued his policy of deception and prevarication.'
'Now we are fed big pills of outright lies, prevarication, and deception.'
'I met people who had endured 12 hours of mis-information and prevarication before they boarded a plane.'

Compare with:

Vacillation -- ODO
The inability to decide between different opinions or actions; indecision:
'the First Minister’s vacillation over the affair'

Regarding the second part of your question:

is there any reason that it might crop up particularly often in the history of Austria and Germany?

It's not certain that these words in the examples you've provided mean anything other than as defined, so this part of your question can't be answered. "Prevarication" can certainly be used as a means of delaying a decision or action, but that's a deliberate act, and not quite the same as the inability that "vacillation" indicates. The ODO entry for "procrastinate" cited above also notes that:

The verbs prevaricate and procrastinate have similar but not identical meanings. Prevaricate means ‘act or speak in an evasive way’, as in he prevaricated at the mention of money. Procrastinate, on the other hand, means ‘put off doing something’, as in the Western powers will procrastinate until it is too late. The meanings are closely related—if someone prevaricates they often also procrastinate—and this can give rise to confusion in use.

  • I am curious about the ODO entry. I see from oxforddictionaries.com/words/… that "The … Oxford Dictionaries focuses on current English …. The OED … forms a record of all the core words and meanings in English … including many obsolete and historical terms"; but definition (3b) that I quote, which explicitly says that it is now the usual sense, seems in direct contradiction to the ODO definition you quote. I'm not sure what to make of that (although it does agree with my own sense of the meanings).
    – LSpice
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 15:36
  • For "It's not certain that these words in the examples you've provided mean anything other than as defined", I agree that, with the limited context available, it is plausible to read them in the way that you describe. However, focussing for example on the second quote (about Germany), I think that it is implausible to read a call for an end to prevarication as a response to vacillation if the author means different things by the two words. (It seems implausible that one of Germany's own leaders would declare that Germany should stop "speak[ing] or act[ing] in an evasive way"!) (cont'd)
    – LSpice
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 15:39
  • The rest of that sentence says "the time for prevarication was over; Germany could no longer wait for Russia to move, but must mobilise." It seems to me that the only plausible reading of this is that it is the waiting or indecision, not the lying, that must stop.
    – LSpice
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 15:40
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    @LSpice: Your points are all reasonable, but I think we need to differentiate between what the words mean, and what the author meant. Have you considered that the author of the sentence may simply have used "prevaricate" incorrectly, and may really have meant "procrastinate"? Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 23:40
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    That is a very good point, that I hadn't really considered. However, it occurs 3 times in this book (so is at least not an isolated error), 1ce in Overy's book, and (I am convinced though I cannot find the specific source) at least 1ce in some other book I have read; so it seems that, if this is an error, then it is at least a persistent one.
    – LSpice
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 1:39

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