pretentious: professing or making claim to great merit or importance, especially when unwarranted

Halloween costumes for pretentious children, by Tom Gauld
Credit: Tom Gauld

among […a]nd amongst. Most such forms ending in -st, such as whilst and amidst, are archaisms in American English. Amongst is no exception: in American English it is pretentious at best.

Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009)

I bow to no-one in my admiration for Bryan Garner, but that’s really pretty striking, isn’t it? A common, short, solidly Anglo-Saxon word that suddenly becomes “pretentious at best” with the addition of a couple of letters. (And I find myself wondering what consequences worse than “pretentious” Garner has in mind.) Garner no doubt knows how speakers of American English respond to certain words, but it’s a bit of a worry if a simple word choice can earn you the label “pretentious” in American English.

But Garner goes on to reassure us that:

Amongst is more common and more tolerable in British English where it doesn’t suggest affectation

Well, phew! There can be few less affected usages of the word amongst than the Scottish exhortation to “Get in amongst it!” (“Participate vigorously!”), but I’ve now made a mental note not to encourage any Americans in this way.

Anyway. There’s not much to say about the etymology of amongst, but pretentious has some interesting connections, which are what I’m going to write about today.

Pretentious, and its associated nouns pretension and pretentiousness, come from Latin prætendere, “to put forward”, derived in turn from the prefix præ (which gives us our English pre-) and tendere, “to stretch”. All of these words have connotations of self-aggrandizement, in contrast to their relatives pretend and pretence, which indicate only that a person is portraying themselves as something different from reality. One can pretend to be a goldfish, for instance, which is the antithesis of pretentiousness.

But the original meaning of our word pretend was close to that of Latin prætendere—it had the sense of putting forward an argument, or advancing a claim, with no implication of falsity or deception. And so anyone with a potential claim on an inheritance would be called a pretender, in the eighteenth century. Here’s Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), on the issue of Title by Descent:

Whereas, by dividing the inheritance according to the roots or stirpes, the rule of descent is kept uniform and steady: the issue of the eldest son excludes all other pretenders, as the son himself (if living) would have done …

In other words, the eldest son inherits a title on the death of his father, which can pass to younger sons should the eldest die (they are the “other pretenders”); but if the eldest son has children (“the issue”), the title passes into that generation instead.

As you read your Scottish history, it’s useful to be aware of this older usage of the word pretender, since both the Old Pretender, James Stuart, and his son the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie), were advancing well-founded claims to the throne—there was no pretence in the modern sense.

Latin præ, in the form of English pre-, has spawned more words than could be dealt with here. Usually, it implies prior time, as in precognition, “foreknowledge”, or prehistory “before (written) history”. Sometimes, it implies superior importance or degree, as in pre-eminent and predominant. And in anatomical nomenclature, it implies a position in front of some other structure—if you have a pretibial laceration, for instance, it’s on the front of your tibia, or shin-bone. Beyond that quick summary of usage, I’ll pause only to express horror at such tautological constructions as preplan and prewarn. The former has been around since the middle of the last century, and the latter is first attested in 1603, though the OED touchingly and optimistically describes it as “v. rare”. Long history doesn’t make their use any less fatuous, however, given that both plans and warnings already imply priority in time. After all, it’s impossible to postplan or postwarn (though I’ve admittedly worked with people who made a fair stab at both).

The prefix præ– wasn’t the only one attracted by Latin tendere, and we have a family of corresponding English words as a result. To contend is to “stretch against”—to strive in opposition to something. To distend is to “stretch apart” and to extend is to “stretch out”. To intend is literally to “stretch inwards”—Latin intendere had a wide range of meanings, including our modern meaning of formulating a purpose. The verb to portend was original protend, to “stretch forth”. We use it in the sense of “foreshadowing”, and the metaphor behind this meaning is of future events “stretching forth” to influence the present. Subtend, “stretch under”, is a term used in geometry, applied to a line or curve that is on the opposite side of a geometrical figure from an angle of interest—the hypotenuse of a right triangle is said to subtend the right angle, for instance.

Ostend, to “stretch before” (not the Belgian seaport), means to reveal or demonstrate. An object or event designed to be particularly showy is ostentatious. The act of ostension, during the Catholic mass, is the moment when the priest holds up the consecrated wafers and wine before the congregation. For semioticians, ostension means the use of an object or an action (rather than language) to communicate a message—holding up your empty glass to indicate that you want another drink; jangling your car keys to suggest that it’s time to go home. And for folklorists, ostension refers to one of those disturbing moments when something previously known only from urban legend or folklore seems to leak into the real world.

I’ve saved attend, “stretch towards”, for the last of this list of -tend words. It has acquired two, related meanings. The first involves directing one’s thoughts and senses towards something—paying attention, in other words. The second involves physical presence—one can attend a ceremony, for instance. In this second meaning, attend frequently loses its prefix (a process called aphesis), and becomes merely tend. One tends to the sick, for example, by being physically present at their bedside; and a bartender is physically present behind the bar.

But tend is really two verbs masquerading as one, and the second versions of tend comes directly from tendere. Latin tendere cursum means “to direct one’s path”, and our word tend has the same implication—“I tend to believe him, despite his tendency to lie.”

Our verb to tender, as in tendering one’s resignation or one’s apologies, also comes to us from tendere—the metaphor here seems to refer to the physical stretching forth of a hand when making an offer of some material object.

My last tendere word is tendril, the slender organ stretched forth by some plants. Tendon, on the other hand, comes from the Greek tenon, designating the same anatomical structure as our modern word. The Romans borrowed from the Greek, but stuck in an extraneous “d”, no doubt influenced by the existence of their own word tendere, and produced Latin tendo, which in turn gave us the English word.

But there’s more. The perfect passive participle of tendere is tentus, “stretched”, which gives us our word tent, for a temporary dwelling of stretched canvas. The word can also function as a verb, meaning “to stretch”, and something which performs a tenting function is a tenter, a name usually applied to a frame on which cloth is stretched. Such tenters are equipped with tenterhooks, the origin of our metaphor “on tenterhooks”, indicating a state of painful suspense.

In later Latin, tentus became tensus, the origin of our adjective tense and noun tension. Something that resists breaking under tension has tensile strength. In anatomy, tensor muscles pull other structures tight; in mathematics, tensors are complicated mathematical objects that can be used to describe (among many other things) the stretching of elastic materials.

But what, I hear you ask, about the adjective tender? From Latin tener, “delicate”. And tentacle? From tentare, “to feel”. I make no pretence of my disappointment.

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