An Abundance Of Caution

US Capitol Building
Source

The office of Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., announced April 9 he had a positive test for the coronavirus after visiting the emergency room “out of an abundance of caution” the evening of April 6.
[…]
“Congresswoman Fletcher sought professional medical treatment out of an abundance of caution. At the determination of her physician, she was tested for COVID-19 today. She will continue to work from home until she receives her test results,” a statement from her office reads.
[…]
A statement from spokeswoman Lina Francis continued, “Congresswoman Pressley sought professional medical treatment out of an abundance of caution. She has been tested for COVID-19 and is awaiting test results.”
[…]
Moulton said a House doctor advised a test wasn’t needed because he and his wife, Liz, had only minor symptoms and the results wouldn’t change their treatment. He said he will stay at home “out of an abundance of caution” and could miss key votes in Washington as a result.
[…]
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said in a statement on March 19 he would self-quarantine following news that Diaz-Balart tested positive for COVID-19, saying he was “around him for an extended period last week.”
“Out of an abundance of caution, I am following the doctor’s instructions to self-quarantine until March 27,” he continued, reiterating he has “no symptoms and feel fine.”
[…]
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., released a statement on Tuesday, March 17, saying he has decided to self-quarantine after meeting with a “Coloradan who visited my Washington office for a constituent meeting” who has tested positive for coronavirus. Gardner said he is not showing any symptoms, but is self-quarantining out of an “abundance of caution.”

Savannah Behrmann‘Abundance of caution’: Several lawmakers quarantine out of fear of contact with coronavirusUSA Today

 

Since the Current Unpleasantness began, we’ve had something of an abundance of “abundance of caution”. I chose the example above simply because it illustrates so well how the phrase has become mind-numbingly popular during these Times of Covid. (I haven’t even quoted all the examples appearing in the USA Today article at the other end of my link above.) It certainly seems that “an abundance of caution” has been something of a go-to phrase for the elected representatives of the American people recently. (Except, of course, for that group that has been exhibiting an abundance of incaution.) There has even been a beer brewed in its honour.

It’s certainly a fine politician’s phrase. “Caution”, on its own, can be parsed as a negative attribute; but an “abundance” of anything has got to be a good thing, doesn’t it? The phrase also allows the user some considerable wiggle room if challenged. An abundance of caution can imply, “Well, I have no good supporting evidence for the course of action I took, but I did it with the best of intentions.” Or it can imply, “Look, I know you think I shouldn’t have done this, but other people think I maybe should have done it, so my abundant caution drove me to acknowledge all viewpoints and make the best of a bad job.”

I don’t recall registering the phrase before this year, when I’ve been encountering it to a positively nauseating extent. But it has been around for long time, it turns out. The extraordinary Reverend John Newton used it in a letter in 1763, for instance, but in context it’s clear he intended the phrase to mean something like “carefully noncommittal”.

The phrase in its current meaning comes to us from legal Latin, ex abundante cautela, “by way of extreme caution”, which was used when a person took extreme measures to avoid an unlikely adverse outcome—“belt and braces”, in other words. In that sense it seems to have leaked into English in the mid-1800s, mediated by people with a background in law. In a search of the Hansard corpus (the written records of the British Parliament) it first appears in 1856, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Lewis, a qualified lawyer) proposing a vote to provide funds to the Royal Navy, covering unexpected expenditure arising from the Crimean War.

I intended to state to the Committee that the Vote which I have proposed is a Vote taken simply from abundance of caution …

Soon after that, in 1859, it turns up being used in the same sense in the written corpus of US Supreme Court opinions. And so it trickled on for a century and a half, until suddenly exploding into prominence this year.


So much for the phrase. With reference to etymology, both abundance and caution have sparse but interesting connections.

Abundance, its adjective abundant, and the verb abound all derive from Latin abundantem, “overflowing”, from the verb abundare, “to overflow”. The verb in turn is formed from the prefix ab-, “away from”, and undare, “to flow in waves”. And undare is the verb from unda, “wave”, the root of our word undulate, as well as the obscure old words und, “wave” and oundy, “wavy”. Undated, meaning “having wavy markings” has also fallen into obscurity, perhaps because of the confusion it could cause with undated, “lacking a date”. Then there’s inundate, literally “to cover with waves”, and undine, a kind of water nymph. We also have redound, which as a noun is a rare synonym for echo. It derives from redundare, “to return in a wave”. As a verb, redound originally meant “to come back upon”, but nowadays that has mutated slightly into “to contribute greatly to”. Then there’s surround, from superundare, another Latin “overflow” word. Its original meaning was “to cover with water”, in the sense of a river bursting its banks, but the subsequent progression to its current meaning is clear, if we imagine buildings surrounded by floodwater.

Caution and its adjective cautious come from Latin cautus, meaning … well, “cautious”. And cautus is the past participle stem of the verb cavere, “to beware”. Cautus also gives us precaution, literally the act of being cautious in advance, and the old word cautel, which, confusingly, seems to have been used to mean both “precaution” and “trick” (that is, the thing one might take precautions against). The third person singular active present subjunctive of the verb cavere is caveat—”let him beware”. In English, a caveat is a warning of some kind, and it’s also familiar from the Latin tag caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”, telling us we should always inspect our purchases before handing over the cash (something that has rather gone by the board in these days of internet shopping). It has a corollary in caveat venditor, “let the seller beware”, which cautions sellers that they are responsible for problems the buyer may have as a result of their purchase. Then there’s caveat lector, “let the reader beware”—don’t accept anything you read uncritically. In 1975, however, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison®* put a whole new spin on that phrase when his short story collection Deathbird Stories was published. He prefaced it with the following injunction:

CAVEAT LECTOR
It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.
H.E.

(Ellison was never much given to underestimating the effectiveness of his own writing.)

The present singular active imperative of cavere is cave, often written with an exclamation mark to indicate its imperative nature: Cave! “Beware!” Posting a notice reading Cave Canem (“Beware of the Dog”) on your front gate was once a way of showing off your classical education, but achieved the exact opposite of “keeping out the riff-raff”—only the classically educated postman was saved from injury. Which may well have been the object of the exercise, I suppose.

And anyone who has read the Billy Bunter books of Frank Richards will know that English public schoolboys of a certain vintage were constantly shouting “Cave!” to each other if a teacher approached the scene of their wrongdoings.

Cave!” shouted Hazeldene suddenly.
The form of Dr. Locke, the Head of Greyfriars, appeared suddenly from a door in the passage. He stood, and stared at the juniors in amazement.
“M-m-my hat!” gasped Bob Cherry.
“Dear me!” said the Head, in wonder.

Bunter the Sportsman (1965)

So “to keep cave” was once slang for “to keep watch”. But the pedant in me wants to tell the hapless Hazeldene that he should have shouted “Cavete!” since there were plural juniors present.

Cue the obligatory scene from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (1979):


* Ellison registered his name as a trademark in 2001. Which tells you something about him, I suppose.

6 thoughts on “An Abundance Of Caution”

  1. Very well put. I have studied also latin in the 1960s. I wish my latin teachers would have taught latin this way.

  2. The problem with Latin is all those conjugations and declensions. There seems to be no way to get around endless rote learning.

  3. I recall often seeing/hearing the phrase “an abundance of caution” over many years not just recently. But I did work in the Public (Civil) Service for nearly 40 years and, as per “Yes (Prime) Minister”, ‘courageous’ decisions and actions were not exactly looked upon favourably.

    Good old Billy Bunter, I read a few of these books in my youth. Given my own fondness for cream cakes etc, I always had sympathy for the title character. I remember Bob Cherry seeming to be a bit of a prig to me.

    I think Harlan Ellison could easily be seen as the epitome of an author who was his own best fan. That being said I did like much of his work and was always pleased to see his by-line appear on some of the episodes in the ‘original’ Star Trek TV series. Although, I gather that his contribution may not have always that great to individual stories..

  4. Yes, I may well have moved in the wrong circles to encounter “an abundance of caution”, but it also seems to be strikingly rare in corpora of general British English. The phrase “abundance of caution” doesn’t turn up a single hit in the Google Ngram corpus of British English up to 2019, and only one hit in the British National Corpus–and that’s in a phrase quoting an American!

    I read a few Bunter books (enough to acquire the word “cave”, while thinking it had something to do with a rocky cavity), but they were even more impenetrable to me than Jennings & Darbishire, Just William, and the entire output of Enid Blyton. In retrospect, the lack of realistic children’s fiction relevant to working-class Scottish kids growing up in peripheral housing estates is probably what drove me into the arms of science fiction writers.

  5. I was convinced that a long time ago I had seen a TV show, based on a some books, about “working-class Scottish kids growing up in peripheral housing estates”. Looking around I found that what I vaguely remembered was actually the 1978 BBC Scotland adaption of John Buchan’s “Hightower” – featuring the “Gorbals Die-Hards”. So I guess that is pretty far from a corpus of works. Obviously, I have no clue whether the activities of the die-hards had even any slight relevance to children actually bought up in those conditions.

  6. It’s a long time since I’ve read Huntingtower, but I know I came to it as an adult. As a child, there would have been things familiar to me about the Gorbals Die-Hards (from my mother’s stories of growing up in the tenements), but much about them was alien, separated from me by forty years during which which many things had changed.
    The post-war housing schemes, of the kind I grew up in, were intended as a sort of antidote to the overcrowded inner-city rookeries like the Gorbals.
    The Die-Hards also featured in two sequels to Huntingtower, I think, which I know I’ve read but remember nothing about.

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