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Essay Three: Learning Verbs of Persuasion
We spend most of our lives trying either to remove the confusion around us or to persuade others to adopt our viewpoint on something. This chapter focuses on verbs of persuasion. They don’t tell you how to persuade someone; they do teach, however, how to express various degrees and methods of persuasion. By knowing and feeling comfortable with these words, you can identify your “style” in persuading others and, perhaps more to the point, describe accurately what others are doing.
The verbs that occupy my primary attention here are beguile, wheedle, coax, cajole, and inveigle. Many others could be suggested, and some of them will be mentioned in passing. (1) But these five will give you words for many occasions.
(1) Among these other verbs are lure, entice, tempt, seduce, and blandish.
Beguile (bee GILE) is word that, when well understood, can be daily useful for you. Its meaning has evolved since it first appeared in English in the early thirteenth century. For the first four hundred years of its life it meant, almost exclusively, to delude, cheat, or deceive someone. Then, beginning with Shakespeare’s use of the term around 1600, it took on another, more subtle meaning—to divert the attention of someone in some pleasant way from anything painful, or to charm a person away from something by presenting another thing more attractive to them. While the first meaning of beguile suggests duplicity, the more modern usage doesn’t imply deceit but merely connotes a disposition to entertain, amuse or otherwise divert someone from a disagreeable subject. A friend is in pain; you use various stratagems to beguile her from her grief. (2)
(2) In this connection I think the Merriam-Webster's Synonym Dictionary is incorrect when it couples beguile exclusively with the verb "deceive," p. 214.
Let’s see the word at work to understand its subtlety and power. An early use of the term is forever etched in our consciousness because of the King James Version of the Bible. In the story of Adam and Eve, the wily serpent (who “was more subtil than any beast of the field”—Genesis 3:1) deceives Eve by getting her to eat the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden. Eve, liking what she saw and having learned that it is always best to share, ate the fruit and gave a portion to Adam, who also ate it. When God appeared and demanded accountability, the woman pointed to the “subtil” serpent and said (Genesis 3:14):
“The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat"
Though there are seven other occurrences of beguile in that 1611 classic, this one entered into our cultural vocabulary because of the function of the Garden narrative in Christian theology. It told of the “Fall” of humanity, a Fall which was a sort of felix culpa (“happy fault”) because it provided the occasion for the redemptive work of Christ. Thus, preachers and theologians would constantly repair to the text of Genesis 3 to make their point about humanity’s shortcomings and the need for salvation. Beguile would always play a role in that tale.
Yet, Shakespeare, who flourished at the time the King James Bible was published, used the term in its more modern sense—to deprive of irksomeness or unpleasantness by diverting or amusing the mind. For example, we have from Hamlet (III.2):
“I would beguile/ The tedious day with sleep"
In other words, sleep would be the pleasant diversion, the means by which one could while away the otherwise tedious or “cormorant devouring” time.(3) Shakespeare also said, in his early Titus Andronicus (IV.1.35-36), “Take choice of all my Library,/ And so beguile thy sorrow.” Or, from Twelfth Night (III.3.41-42), “I will bespeake our diet/ Whiles you beguile the time.” Thus, one can beguile time or sorrow or the day. Whenever someone is bored or distracted, “beguile” ought not to be far away from your lips. “Let me beguile you from your pain [or ‘beguile your pain’] by a story.”
(3) Shakespeare uses the phrase "cormorant devouring Time" in Love's Labor's Lost, I.1.4.
Shakespeare’s most eye-catching use of the word is in Love’s Labor’s Lost. The King of Navarre has established a little academy, the “academe,” where young men can retreat from life for three years to study, learn and thereby gain fame. The strictures upon admittance to the community, however, are severe: no women, three hours of sleep a night, fasting one day a week. One of the trio of early scholars, Berowne, takes issue with the strict regimen. He implies that they ought to be permitted some pleasure because study by itself tends to produce pain and suffering. He says I.1.72-77):
“Why? All delights are vain, but that most vain
Which, with pain purchas’d, doth inherit pain:
As, painfully to pore upon a book
To seek the light of truth, while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile"
I know. It is lines like these that make some people hate the Bard. You just have to go too slowly to make sense of him. But if we take a second, we see that Berowne is saying that poring over books too long is painful. Why give up pleasure to pursue pain? Reading blinds you. Then, interpreting our line (77): “Light” (the eye), through seeking light (that is, the light of wisdom or truth), takes away or deprives us of vision (“doth light of light beguile”). Here the use of beguile doesn’t include a pleasant or amusing diversion; it simply stresses what is lost or taken away.
We complete our treatment of beguile by quoting a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a widow who lost sons in the Civil War. Scholars have doubted the authenticity of the latter (some claiming that it was written by Lincoln’s Secretary of State John Hay), and they have also pointed out that not every assertion in the letter was correct (e.g., the mother had “only” lost two and not five sons), but it gives us a great use of beguile. (4)
(4) Read for a brief discussion of the issues. [Note, this link doesn't work anymore; a discussion of the issue is here:
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
Dear Madam,---I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. . .” (5)
(5) Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 8, pp. 116-117. The easiest way to find the text online is to search for the Collected Works and then do a word search under "beguile."It is interesting that this is the only place in Lincoln's oeuvre where he uses that word.
The usage is completely consistent with that of Shakespeare. Beguile means to divert attention from a painful thing. It doesn’t have a nefarious or deceptive connotation here. Armed, now, with two meanings of “beguile,” you can not only go out into the world with more confidence, but you can immediately spot situations nearly every day for which the word beguile would be helpful and appropriate. People will stop and ask you what you mean. It will be like wearing a sharp new pair of shoes or displaying a new hairstyle. Heads will turn.
Wheedle, Coax, Cajole, and Inveigle
While beguile suggests skillful, but not necessarily deceptive, means to draw a person out of a situation, wheedle means to entice or persuade a person by soft flattering words. Often it is used in connection with getting something tangible from another person. The Dictionary of Synonyms suggests that it consists of “soft words, artful flattery, or seductive appeal.” The emphasis of wheedle is on the technique you use. Thus, you can wheedle someone out of his money; wheedle a person out of the property; wheedle a secret from someone. RL Stevenson wrote in 1886: “Wheedling my money from me while I lay half asleep.”
You can also use wheedle without an object to emphasize the soft or flattering words used by someone. “His business was to pump and wheedle.” Or, from Jonathan Swift, “Johnny wheedled, threaten’d, fawn’d.” More recently, New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and Janet Maslin have used the word. In describing President Obama’s “passivity” towards Congress, Dowd writes:
“He reckons he’ll need Congress for more ambitious projects, like health care, and when he goes back to wheedle more bailout billions..” (6)
(6) New York Times, March 3, 2009, A27.
Maslin wrote a book review of Michael Faber’s The Fire Gospel. She said:
“That book is an earth-shaking religious tract. It is created by a strange twist of fate. Theo is in Iraq, trying to wheedle relics away from a museum curator in Mosul. . .” (7)
(7) New York Times, January 8, 2009, C1.
If you use soft, flattering words to get you what you want, you are wheedling someone. “She could wheedle the soul out of a saint.”
If you coax someone you are doing something very close to wheedling them, though coax doesn’t have the potential sliminess, smarminess and seductive possibilities as wheedle. A coax (noun) is a simpleton, gull, dupe or fool, but the verb, though derived from that, primarily emphasizes the flattery dimensions of the word: “To caress; flatter; fool with flattery or caresses.” (8) The OED is similar: “To influence or persuade by caresses, flattery or blandishment.” Johnson, the great dictionary-maker of the eighteenth century, described coax as a “low word” and equated it with "to wheedle, to flatter.” (9)
(8) Definition in the Century Dictionary (online).
(9) OED, s.v.
If you try to coax someone, you plead gently and skillfully with them, often using flattery or gentle means to accomplish your ends. “She spoke in a coaxing voice, like a nurse cooing to a baby.” Rudyard Kipling could write: “Little by little, he coaxed some of the men whom the measure concerned most intimately to give their views.”
One can also coax meaning from a text or a situation. A more recent synonym for this latter use of coax is “tease” or “tease out.” “Let’s coax the text to see what it will yield” (or “Let’s try to tease some meaning out of it”). One author could write of a person who “can linger over and taste a phrase, coaxing its flavor to the palate as if it were an old wine.”
When we come to cajole, however, we are usually placed back in the realm of deceit or insincerity While coax is, today, a neutral term expressing soft, flattering or ingratiating attempts to persuade, cajole is most often used to describe an effort to “prevail upon or get one’s way with a person by delusive flattery, specious promises, or any false means of persuasion.” (10) John Milton used the word in this way in 1649: “That the people may no longer be abused and cajoled, as they call it, by falsities and court-impudence.” Politicians can be accused of trying to cajole the people into following a certain course, when that course secretly benefits the politician. Having just said that cajole usually has more negative connotations than coax, I retreat slightly. If one cajoles someone into a course of action, it may also mean that you are trying to convince someone to make a decision without any nefarious designs.
(10) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
The word cajole occupies the same linguistic world as coax, flatter, wheedle, blandish and ingratiate. All of these terms have some flexibility to them, as described, but they all suggest subtle ways to persuade someone of a course of action. There is no bulldozing or browbeating or intimidation or coercing here. We are in the gentler realms of persuasion.
I conclude this chapter with a special word related to the preceding but which emphasizes the successful result of this coaxing, cajolery, flattery or wheedling: inveigle. The word is three syllables—in VAY gul. If you know the French root of the term, you have gone a long way to understand it. The OED tells us that the ultimate root is avegle/aveugle, from the French word meaning “to blind.” Thus, the first appearance of the word in English, in Thomas More (1522), stressed the blinding of the mind or the judgment. Its earliest meaning was a synonym to the original meaning of beguile. If one inveigled someone, one deceived him or her.
Though the negative connotation continued over time, inveigle increasingly took on, like beguile, a more neutral or even positive tone: to entice or allure. While Milton could write of its deceptive use in 1634, “Yet have they many baits, and guileful spells/ To inveigle and invite the unwary sense,” by the 20th century it could suggest an artful way to get one’s aims. One can inveigle a raise from the boss through flattery, careful argument or even seduction. You can inveigle someone into granting you an interview, into lending you money, into giving you the “juicy details” of someone else’s life.
Inveigle is like the other words described in this chapter, except that it normally focuses on the successful result of the flattery or artful pleading. In a use appearing in 2009, the (English) Mail on Sunday reviewed the movies on TV for the week. One of them was the 1966 movie Nevada Smith. Here is the description:
“Steve McQueen is the eponymous (great word!—it means “name-giving”) character out for revenge in this gritty western. Half white-half Indian, Smith inveigles himself into the bandit gang responsible for the death of his parents. . .”
He gained his way into the gang by using artful or skillful means.
With these five or ten words you have an array of ways to make your case to someone or, even better, to discern how others are acting towards you and each other. They are powerful tools for you.