Lexicographer Ben Zimmer (now of Visual Thesaurus) has a new Slate article on procrastination:

The promise of “another day” is the key to the word’s origin. It derives from the Latin verb procrastinare, combining the prefix pro– “forward” with crastinus “of tomorrow”—hence, moving something forward from one day until the next. Even in ancient Roman times, procrastination was disparaged: The great statesman Cicero, in one of his Philippics attacking his rival Mark Antony, declaimed that “in the conduct of almost every affair slowness and procrastination are hateful” (in rebus gerendis tarditas et procrastinatio odiosa est).

(Shouldn’t that be “tarditas et procrastinatio odiosae sunt”?) He discusses the (to me repugnant) concept “never put off till tomorrow what you can do today” and its analogues in various languages (“‘Morgen, Morgen, nur nicht heute,’ sagen alle faulen Leute”), pointing out that though the concept is ubiquitous, the word is not. And he mentions this wonderful feature of Egyptian:

Adherents to this view point to the evenhanded approach of the ancient Egyptian language, which had two verbs corresponding to procrastinate. One verb referred to the useful avoidance of unnecessary or impulsive efforts, and the other to the harmful shirking of tasks needed for subsistence, such as tilling the soil at just the right time during the Nile’s annual flood cycle.

Anybody know the actual word for “the useful avoidance of unnecessary or impulsive efforts”? Because that is the kind of procrastination I practice. Actually, though, I don’t so much procrastinate as perendinate, a wonderful word I learned from Ben’s article meaning “to put something off until the day after tomorrow.”


  1. mollymooly says


  2. How about the phrase: “Don’t cross your bridges until you come to them”

  3. Actually, I think “integrity” is the right word. Or “consideration.” In order to determine whether it’s actually useful avoidance, there is evaluative thought, right? And evaluation requires that you measure the behavior against some standard (useful to whom?)…and since the best standard of the worth of your time should be YOUR standard….it’s really about having the integrity to avoid that which is unproductive or counterproductive….am I right? (And if I am, is there a prize?)

  4. Actually, I meant the actual Egyptian word. But I agree with your attitude!

  5. In Latin (and especially in Cicero, it seems) it is quite common for two or more subjects in apposition to take a singular verb. For example, the phrase ‘senatus populusque romanus’ usually takes a verb in the singular.

  6. You can get do something similar in English: “in the conduct of almost every affair slowness—as well as procrastination—is hateful.”

  7. rootlesscosmo says

    Don’t know much about ancient Egyptian, but how about “cunctation,” from Fabius Cunctator, “the Delayer” whose prudence gave the Fabian Society their name?
    Yeah, yeah, I know.

  8. I believe it’s normal in Latin to use a singular verb when two subject nouns in coordination are synonymous.

  9. Pity the Fabian Society forget the origin of its name 🙂

  10. I believe it’s normal in Latin to use a singular verb when two subject nouns in coordination are synonymous.
    I’ll buy that. I am no Latinist.

  11. Sorry I can’t help out with the Egyptian — I was relying on a secondary (or tertiary) source. It was discussed in:
    DeSimone, P. (1993). Linguistic assumptions in scientific language. Contemporary Psychodynamics: Theory, Research & Application, 1, 8-17.
    which was cited in the introduction to:
    Ferrari, J. R., Johnson, J. L., & McCown, W. G. (1995). Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research, and treatment. New York, NY, USA: Plenum Press.
    Wasn’t able to find the original article.
    Rootlesscosmo: cunctation merited a mention in my Visual Thesaurus column about procrastination. Sounds vaguely obscene to me.

  12. rootlesscosmo says

    Ben: more than vaguely, I’d say; I have a nightmare vision of Mrs. Krabopple ordered by Principal Skinner to include it in a lesson plan about Lake Titicaca. But I can’t think of another word implying “prudent delay” rather than just foot-dragging.

  13. I quite like ‘prevaricate’ as well. The two words have a pleasing homoeophony. I will note also that F. Valpy (1828), who derives all Latin words from Greek, derives ‘cras’ (tomorrow) from Greek ‘krasis’, mixing, because today is mixed seamlessly into tomorrow.

  14. Can we get back to you on with the answer?
    Sheesh, post is up eight hours and no one yet posted the obvious joke. Or were you all just meaning to do it later?

  15. SnowLeopard says

    The question underscores what I find to be an appalling dearth of decent materials on (and in) Middle Egyptian. In my library, only Gardiner’s antique Egyptian Grammar actually has an English-Egyptian vocabulary section at all. Its rudimentary glossary has no word for “procrastinate”; all I can find is “wdf” (i.e, quail chick, hand, horned viper, duck, walking legs) for “delay”. The Egyptian-English dictionary at the back of Allen’s Middle Egyptian has the evidently related “wdfj” (same glyphs as above, sans duck) meaning “be late, dawdle”. Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian translates various comparable forms as “delay”, “be sluggish”, “tardily”. So this would seem to reflect the wrong sort of procrastination, assuming the assertion was correct in the first place. My own Egyptian is extremely weak and I gladly defer to my betters, but I worry that the claim of two separate words for procrastination could just be one of those notions that’s become exaggerated or distorted in the retelling.

  16. There’s the online TLA .

  17. in the conduct of almost every affair slowness—as well as procrastination—is hateful
    That’s a bad example. The subject remains slowness, and it is certainly not plural. As well as, along with along with, is a cunning way of using a singular verb by keeping a strictly singular subject. Sometimes circumstances call for that. Try instead: Hot lemon juice and honey is better for your cold than aspirin.

  18. We were taught (40 years ago) that a composite subject was singular, which covers the SPQR case, and that a coordinated subject agreed with the nearest (possibly singular).

    Nunc mihi nihil libri, nihil litterae, nihil doctrina prodest.

    I would contend that juice and honey is the former and the case here the latter, which requires cunning in English.

  19. And there is Japanese 黙殺 mokusatu, which can apparently be translated as both ‘ignore’ and ‘wait-and-see’ (or something like that), leading to tragic results at the end of the Second World War. If only they’d said they’d ‘procrastinate’ on the Allied demand to surrender, they might have avoided the atomic bomb!

  20. Christophe Strobbe says

    I have been intending to submit these links for over a day: Structured Procrastination and Procrastination and Perfectionism by John Perry. Learn how to use one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another, and stop feeling guilty 😉

  21. marie-lucie says

    Wonderful links, Christophe! Us structured procrastinators can also proudly advertise our flaws/assets on our clothing or coffee cups, thanks to another link, when we get around to ordering.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Its rudimentary glossary has no word for “procrastinate”; all I can find is “wdf”

    Well, that sounds alright. Surely standing back and saying “WTF?” delays things.

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