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Resurrecting 'pretexting'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  September 13, 2006 03:52 PM

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The odium heaped on Hewlett-Packard for its internal spying has spilled over, in several commentaries, to the word for H-P's particular brand of subterfuge. Among those questioning its legitimacy was Hal Plotkin:

"The word 'pretexting" is simply a euphemism -- invented by its practitioners -- for obtaining something that does not belong to them by lying and committing fraud."

And Elana Centor chimed in at Blogher:

"Like a rock star who becomes an overnight success, pretexting is [a] word that seems to have come out of nowhere."

Not so fast, folks. Euphemism it may be, but pretexting isn't a nasty neologism dreamed up by middle managers to torment the buzzword-averse. In fact, it’s a French- and Latin-derived verb that had a respectable 300-year run, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, which quotes, among others, Horace Walpole: "A decency was observed, and conscience always pretexted" (1797).

Of course, in that earlier incarnation, pretext meant merely "put forward as a pretext or excuse," not "pretend to be someone else in order to get his private phone records." But its revival in this modern, tweaked sense doesn't make it a new word.

And having faded into obscurity more than a century ago, pretexting seems unlikely to muscle out scamming, lying, and impersonating this time around. In fact, it faces a new 21st-century barrier: In the text-messaging era, pretexting sounds as if it should be a kind of texting. (Pre-texting -- is that texting a friend to warn that you'll be texting her later?)

No, I think pretexting, the revival, is probably doomed to a life in the jargon demimonde. But it won't have earned that fate by being new, ugly, euphemistic, ill-formed, or lacking in pedigree.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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