The Dictionary Definition of “Pretentious”

“Pretentious” is one of those words you don’t hear a lot once you reach adulthood. It’s always popular with the young folks, but by certain age people seem to stop using it very much.

Maybe some day we’ll find the hidden Holden Caulfield gene, and scientists will explain that there are dedicated neural circuits called phoneyites which turn on at a certain stage in development, only to deactivate once maturity is finally reached.

On the one hand, it’s a real shame because “pretentious” is a fantastically declarative-sounding insult, and unlike other teen favorites such “poseur”, it still packs a punch when adults hear it directed at them.

On the other hand, it’s not unfortunate at all. That’s because today (just like back then), people misuse the word “pretentious” all the damn time. And misusing the word “pretentious” is probably one of the most pretentious things a person can do.

How To Get It Wrong

Most often, I hear people use the word “pretentious” as a catch-all like “jerk” or today’s apex of American insults, “d—–bag.” (Which I think has caught on for sounding both abominably crass and incredibly silly at the same time.)

However, in reality, “pretentious” does not simply mean “jerk, but like, when it’s a smart person.” Even if that is how it seems to get used most of the time.

Merriam Webster has a pretty good handle on the original definition: “ Making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing).” Another online dictionary pegs it as: “Claiming or demanding a position of distinction or merit, especially when unjustified.” That works too.

Some lesser (dare I say pretentious) dictionaries have been adding an extra definition recently, to the effect of “ostentatious” or “showy.” With this tack, the dictionary writers are just being pushovers, essentially saying: “Okay, fine. If you people are going to keep on using it that way, we’ll put it in there. At the very bottom, alright?

(This is extra-sad because “ostentatious” and “showy” don’t make for great insults at all. If you had ever had the opportunity to yell at Freddy Mercury from a passing car and said: “Hey! You look really ostentatious in that full body leotard with the chest cut out,” he probably would have taken it as a compliment. And deservedly so.)

To all that, I say “phooey.” (Phoo·ey fü-ee Actually a word. Look it up.)

Often enough, things that smart people call “pretentious” are actually “arrogant” or “annoying”, while the things that really dumb people refer to as “pretentious” are merely “smart” or “interesting.” (It’s important to remember that to idiots of excessively high self-opinion, they’re all pretty much the same thing.)

But we already have enough general, all-purpose insults, and we don’t need to turn pretentious into yet another one, especially when it already has such a great specific meaning. If you ever get lost, just know that the key to using “pretentious” right is remembering the whole pretending part. Luckily, it’s right there in the word to guide you.

Using It Correctly

So, what is pretentious?

Just about any story Ernest Hemingway has ever told about himself? Pretentious. (Seriously, the guy straight-up lied about major points in his life, like the extent of his war service, and then milked those fibs for credit.)

However, using Ernest Hemingway as a valid example in a conversation about pretension? That’s not pretentious, as he is one of the best-known authors in the history of the universe, and because no one expects to get a gold star for having heard of him.

What about having a definitive-sounding opinion about Ernest Hemingway if you haven’t actually read one of his books? Yes, that would definitely be pretentious.

I often hear people refer to hip, expensive or conspicuous new fashions as “pretentious.” I guess that’s okay if we accept the new definition that some dictionaries are pushing, but in my book, that still doesn’t cut it.

A scrawny 22-year old with a mustache that he can’t quite pull off doesn’t have a “pretentious mustache.” That same 22-year old could easily be pretentious, but it would have to be for his words, actions and expectations, not the success or failure of his flavor-saver. There are so many other words for people with questionable taste that I wonder why we insist on sullying up a perfectly good word with all sorts of extra connotations.

With the classic definition, the only way a fashion could be called pretentious is if it’s meant to say something specific about the wearer that is in fact untrue.  So: non-corrective eyeglasses. Those are pretentious. Yes, I think we can all agree they’re one of the most pretentious things on earth.

But, if you’ve got ’em, I say go ahead and wear ’em. It’s doubtful any adult will ever call you out on it. There are too many rules and frankly, it’s just so hard to get it right.

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