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