How we got a word for "putting things off."
Read more from Slate's special issue on procrastination.
Pro · cras · ti · na · tion. How fitting that the word is lengthy and Latinate, taking its time to reach a conclusion. Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson once wrote that procrastination is "really sloth in five syllables." And yet the word denotes so much more than mere sloth or indolence: A procrastinator meticulously organizing a sock drawer or an iTunes library can't exactly be accused of laziness. Likewise, procrastination is not simply the act of deferral or postponement. It implies an intentional avoidance of important tasks, putting off unpleasant responsibilities that one knows should be taken care of right away and setting them on the back burner for another day.
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).
When procrastinate and procrastination began appearing in English in the mid-16th century (a time when Latinisms were flooding the language, mostly via French), the words suggested the classical repugnance toward inaction at critical moments. But procrastination soon took on a dire new meaning: Christians used the term to remind sinners that postponing the repentance of one's wicked ways may lead to damnation. A 1553 sermon spoke of dire consequences for "he that doth prolong or procrastinate" the confession of sins, while a 1582 tract on "The Foolishness of Men" warned, "Take heed therefore, that by procrastinating repentance ... thou wittingly and of purpose, do not tempt the Lord."
With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Christian moralism fused with commercial pursuits. Procrastination not only forestalled salvation in the next life but also the goal of financial well-being in this one. Thus the evils of procrastination worked their way into the oft-repeated adages of the new capitalist era. "Procrastination is the thief of time," wrote English poet Edward Young in 1742. A few years later, Philip Stanhope, the Earl of Chesterfield, penned the words: "No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today." Ben Franklin is credited with a similar saying, mockingly transformed by Mark Twain into the procrastinator's motto, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." (Those who follow Twain's wry advice don't just procrastinate, they perendinate, a useful word meaning "to put something off until the day after tomorrow.")
Anti-procrastination maxims of the Chesterfield variety crop up in many European languages with very similar wording, from Spanish (No dejes para mañana lo que puedes hacer hoy) to Polish (Co masz jutro zrobić, zrób dziś). In German there's the rhyming couplet, "'Morgen, Morgen, nur nicht heute,' sagen alle faulen Leute," or " 'Tomorrow, tomorrow, not today,' all the lazy people say." Given these shared sentiments it's peculiar that few languages have a compact single-word equivalent for the English procrastination. It's even more peculiar that Romance languages like Spanish and French have sometimes ended up borrowing the word procrastination from modern English despite their closer kinship to the Latin original.
Those languages that haven't adapted the English term often have to make do with a word that means something more general like "postponement," missing out on the nuances of procrastination. In Russian, for instance, procrastination is usually rendered as promedlenie, or "delay." Alternatively, a Russian speaker could go the literary route and allude to Oblomov, the dithering protagonist in Ivan Goncharov's 1859 novel. Oblomovshchina or "Oblomovism" has come to describe a whole set of characteristics (often ascribed to Russia as a whole), including "the habit of waiting for everything to be provided by others rather than oneself." Arabic, on the other hand, comes a bit closer to the mark with taswif, literally meaning "to say, 'I will, I will.' " "A beautiful word—considered etymologically," opined Sir Richard Burton in a footnote to his translation of Arabian Nights.
Speakers of non-English languages may be scrambling to find translational equivalents as procrastination becomes more widely recognized as a debilitating psychological condition, spawning its own self-help literature and new therapeutic techniques. The Internet age makes the dangers of procrastination all the more acute, with everything from social networking sites to YouTube videos tailored for maximum time wastage. A researcher of the phenomenon, Norman A. Milgram of Tel Aviv University, called procrastination "a malady of modern time" in 1992 (long before anyone had heard of Facebook Scrabulous). The more industrialized and technologized a society becomes, Milgram argued, the more it has to grapple with procrastination as a problematic notion. 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.
Egyptian agriculture aside, it's unclear exactly how modern the concept of procrastination really is, since one could draw a straight line from Cicero chewing out Mark Antony to a 21st-century boss berating an employee for spending too much time on eBay. Perhaps that's another reason why procrastination is so long. A shorter word just wouldn't have enough room to hide so many historical layers of guilt and anxiety.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer for the Visual Thesaurus.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.