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31 March 2009 @ 09:45 am
Pretentious, from one online dictionary

1. full of pretense or pretension.
2. characterized by assumption of dignity or importance.
3. making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.

Pretentious, from another

1: characterized by pretension: as a: making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) <the pretentious fraud who assumes a love of culture that is alien to him — Richard Watts> b: expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature <pretentious language> <pretentious houses>
2: making demands on one's skill, ability, or means : ambitious

Relatedly, Pretension

1 : an allegation of doubtful value : pretext
2 : a claim or an effort to establish a claim
3 : a claim or right to attention or honor because of merit
4 : an aspiration or intention that may or may not reach fulfillment - <has serious literary pretensions>
5 : vanity, pretentiousness

This is an interesting word. Remember in the book 1984, where words like "liberty" and "sedition" (and many others) would all be replaced by the word "crimethink"? My problem with the word "pretentious" is that it does the same thing. That is, it lumps ambition, aspiration and dignity together with pretext, vanity and ostentation.

"Pretentious" is used to dismiss people out of hand, and yet it correctly applies to the dignified, the ambitious and the audacious. And worse yet, people use it to dismiss exactly those people for exactly those qualities.

It bothers me.
Anthony: interrogating textterpsichoros on March 31st, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
The definitions specify that the dignity is "assumed", rather than earned. I haven't seen much use of the word to dismiss people who have earned their dignity, or who have actually achieved something of importance.
The Water Seekerplymouth on March 31st, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
Exactly. When we think they're actually living up to their assumed importance we just call them "ambitious".
Anthony: interrogating textterpsichoros on March 31st, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC)
Or "arrogant". (Though I see a distinction between "earned arrogance" and "unearned arrogance".)
Noahangelbob on March 31st, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC)

1: the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed
2 a: high rank, office, or position b: a legal title of nobility or honor
3archaic : dignitary
4: formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language

I ignore definition 3 as archaic, and not what you, I or the definitions above meant. Definitions 1 and 2 can't easily be assumed. Definition 4 can, but then what you wrote suggests that it needs to be earned.

Is that what you meant?
Anthonyterpsichoros on March 31st, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
Definition 1 most certainly can be assumed - lots of people can pretend to be worthy, honored, or esteemed, when in fact they aren't. Definition 2 is harder to fake, unless you write spam for Nigerians.

In my work, we deal a little with folks from the Middle East and India, where being an engineer is a much bigger deal than it is in the U.S. (In fact, an engineer is likely to include that fact in his title, as are some European engineers, the way physicians call themselves Dr. Smith instead of Mr. Smith.) To my very American eyes, the formality of address used towards engineers by Middle-easterners seems pretentious, because it assumes that engineers are worthy of a certain level of esteem or respect which as an American, I see as excessive.
rbusrbus on March 31st, 2009 05:12 pm (UTC)
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

You're correct, the word is interesting. I've always thought it says more about the person using it than the person it's applied to.

"Pedantic" is the same way for me. The user exhibits the same characteristic ascribed to another.
Lianafyfer on March 31st, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
(I know your real point is about what we value vs what we dismiss, not linguistics. So this is just me thinking out loud here.)

I think that the definitions you quoted mostly establish that it's a word that can be used in different contexts with different meanings, but I also think that you're right. It became a much more common word at some point, something we all throw around to dismiss people. And that's shifted its use towards one of its original meanings, so when it's used in other contexts, it's confusing.

For instance, the phrase "pretender to the throne" does not imply that the claim is unjustified, but people would probably read it that way. And the phrase in meaning #4 above, "has serious literary pretensions," should not imply that it fails at those claims, but I bet these days most people would only say "literary pretensions" to imply that it does fail.

I guess a lot of words go through this shift. "Nice" is another one.
satyrlovesong on March 31st, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)
*grin* I learned about nice from "Good Omens", I think.
griffjongriffjon on April 1st, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
Because you're a pretentious thoughtcriminal.
Camille, Destroyer of Worldsskamille on April 1st, 2009 12:18 pm (UTC)
Pretentious has for my entire life had an implied negative. It is clearly written out in the entire first definition you quoted, and in the primary definition from the second source. Do you have strong literary sources from an earlier time that commonly use pretentious to merely mean ambitious?
This is so far removed from the idea of replacing "liberty" with "crimethink" that you do an injustice to the concept by trying to compare the two.
Noahangelbob on April 1st, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
Well, for instance, here's a bit written in January of this year in a random British political blog. It's of a tone that I associate with similar "part journalism, part opinion" periodicals of various sorts. I don't consider it uncommon or archaic:

The objective is to make Britain a society in which only proles have any visibility in public life; those with the smallest pretensions to gentility, education or civility must be ruthlessly swept off the radar

That's "pretension" rather than "pretentious", but the first definition that you liked includes "full of pretension" in its first sub-definition. And I'm used to "pretentious" being able to be used in pretty much the same way.
r_transpose_pr_transpose_p on April 3rd, 2009 08:04 am (UTC)
What I think is really going on here is the following:

Sometimes people call Noah pretentious.

Not saying he is, just saying he gets called that.

Noah tries to turn it into a global phenomemon, a statement about the world.

But probably, whats really going on is :

Noah is a smart kid from Texas who tries really hard to not be from Texas. Sometimes people who aren't smart kids from Texas listen to him, and notice that he's trying really hard to be something, perhaps even something he's not. Not being from Texas, said people don't understand why Noah is doing a perfectly reasonable thing. They call him pretentious.

Really, though, he's simply the sort of guy who'd rather just pontificate on the virtues of 20 year old port or stud his conversation with references to high culture, obscure culture, and really geeky culture than going around hating on anyone who doesn't fit Texas social norms.

P.S. I didn't know what the word "pontificate" meant until recently. I believe, however, that I am now using it correctly.
Noahangelbob on April 3rd, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)
You are indeed using the word "pontificate" correctly.

You're basically correct about people calling me pretentious. I'm not the only one I've seen called it, in situations that, to me, look reasonable, or perhaps ambitious, or otherwise not-bad. But yes, your scenario is basically correct -- it's just not, in my experience, limited to me.

This word, used to describe these not-always-bad situations (correctly, says the dictionary) is generally considered to be always bad (correctly, says skamille).

Pretentious includes "trying to act like you've achieved something you haven't." But it's used to include "trying to achieve something you haven't yet."