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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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