A Word A Day : Oscillate

Wednesday, 19th March 2008 : Today's Word is ...


( Transitive and Intransitive Verb )

Past and past participle : oscillated
Present participle : oscillating
3rd person present singular : oscillates

Pronunciation : ósse-làyt


1. to swing between two points with a rhythmic motion

2. to be unable to decide which is the better of two positions, points of view, or courses of action

3. to cause something to produce rhythmic, predictable variations between two extremes, usually within a set period of time, or vary in this way

4. Mathematics : (of a function, sequence, etc.) to tend to no limit including infinity

5. to vibrate before coming to a total rest


Early 18th century - Latin oscillat- past participle of oscillare - to swing - oscillum - swing, mask - (of Bacchus hung as a charm on a tree to swing) - os - mouth, face, head

Word History:The rather dry word oscillate may become a bit less dry when we learn its story. It is possible that it goes back to the Latin word ōscillum, a diminutive of ōs, "mouth," meaning "small mouth." In a passage in the Georgics, Virgil applies the word to a small mask of Bacchus hung from trees to move back and forth in the breeze. From this word ōscillum may have come another word ōscillum, meaning "something, such as a swing, that moves up and down or back and forth." And this ōscillum was the source of the verb ōscillāre, "to ride in a swing," and the noun (from the verb) ōscillātiō, "the action of swinging or oscillating." The words have given us, respectively, our verb oscillate, first recorded in 1726, and our noun oscillation, first recorded in 1658. The next time one sees something oscillating, one might think of that small mask of Bacchus swinging from a pine tree in the Roman countryside.


swing, move back and forth, move to and fro, move backward and forward, fluctuate, vacillate, alternate, undulate, waver, hesitate, vacillate, blow hot and cold, dither, equivocate, be indecisive, run hot and cold, fluctuate


Oscillate means to be undecided about something or regularly swing from side to side.

Osculate means to kiss or to come together - in mathematics it means to have three or more points coincident with.


continue, remain, be certain, go ahead

Contextual Examples:

• The court has oscillated over the decades from more liberal to less, more conservative to less, depending upon who was president at the time of vacancies.

• So angry was Sheldon becoming that the face and form of the other seemed to vibrate and oscillate before his eyes.

• On sea, the vessels rocked by the waves are still in motion. In the air, the balloon oscillates incessantly on the fluid strata of divers densities.

• He oscillates regularly between elation and despair.

• The sequence 0, 1, 0, 1, … oscillates.

Related Words:

oscillator : Noun

oscillation : Noun

oscillatory : Adjective

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