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The Pretext of Pretexting


Bonnie Seely raised an interesting question in response to our recent Good Word pretexting about words in yesterday’s e-mail. Bonnie wrote: “If the below is the definition of pretext, then what is a false pretext? Wouldn’t any pretext be “false” in intent?”

The definition of pretext that she sent along is this: “Obtaining secret or private information by pretending to be someone eligible to see that information; in other words, giving a fictitious identity (pretext) to obtain restrictive information.”

Bonnie’s point is that the phrase “false pretext” which has become a cliche in the language is redundant; we only need pretext. She is in a prestigious boat for no one less than Noam Chomsky raised a similar point several decades ago.

Chomsky’s point was that derived words are semantically unpredictable and so the sort of derivation rules that I spent my life developing are not feasible. Obviously, I had to respond and in doing so, made an interesting discovery about the relation between adjectives like false and nouns like pretext.

Chomsky’s examples included readable book and drinkable wine. He claimed in these cases that readable does not mean “capable of being read” and drinkable does not mean “capable of being drunk”. I argued that, in fact, they mean precisely that if we know an important fact about phrases like this: that redundancy is commonplace in language and it serves a purpose.

In fact, readable book does mean that the book is capable of being read. The first question should have been, “Why would anyone even utter this phrase since being able to be read is part of the definition of book?” Books are published ONLY to be read and wine is made ONLY to be drunk.

So readable book actually means “a capable of being read capable of being read thing”. “Capable of being read” is semantically redundant in this phrase, even though you only see it once in readable. So what does language do with redundancy like this?

Well, it interprets it as intensification. Look at the phrase a red, red rose, which we say all the time. What is the difference between a red rose and a red, red one? The latter is the equivalent of a VERY red rose. The redness is intensified by the repetition of the sense of red.

I claim that readable book reflects the same rule of semantics because book is defined (very roughly) as “an object with pages to be read“. Adding readable to its description makes a book doubly capable of being read. If a book is doubly capable of being read, following the example of the red, red rose, it should be a VERY readable book. This seems to the case. (Notice that a readable scribble does not carry this meaning since scribbles are not necessarily created to be read.)

I still find it fascinating to examine phrases like this and the differences between, say, drinkable water and drinkable wine (not all water can be drunk), a playable hand in cards and a playable piano. In every case, if the noun by definition is only meant for the quality or process of the derived adjective, the semantic result is intensification because, I would argue, that sense is redundantly duplicated.

Wow! I hope I didn’t wander too far into the mysteries of semantics. Let me just conclude, then, by asking, “Where does this bring us?” Well, I think that it brings us to where we began: false pretext. This is a permissible phrase if we mean a VERY false pretext, since “false” is built into the meaning of pretext itself. I know that most people do not use it that way but it could be used to emphasize the fact that the falseness was especially intentional.

If this idea interests you, keep an eye on my office at alphaDictionary (the Reference Shelf), where I will be depositing a short essay on this theme shortly.


5 Responses to “The Pretext of Pretexting”

  1. Mr Pipes Says:

    I once blundered into a book entitled _Principia Mathematica_:talk about a book that can’t be read! I venture to say 99% of all people couldn’t read more than 1% of it, including myself of course.

  2. engineer27 Says:

    First to Comment!

    Actually, my comment starts here. What you saw before was merely pretext … that is, some text that is placed before the start of the main body of a work, analagous to a PostScript which is placed after the ostensible end of a work.

    In reality, all of that was pretext, and what I really want to comment on is the apparent, but not actual, semantic drift present in the word ‘pretext’, since it appears to be composed of the common word ‘text’ prepended by the common prefix ‘pre’. Of course, this isn’t the case, as already expounded in the “What’s the Good Word?” from Oct 2.

    On the topic of redundancy in language representing intensification, this is a phenomenon which is well established. Hebrew scripture is replete with examples of words being repeated for emphasis or intensification. However, I am not sure if the usage of an adjective with a noun in which the adjective is implicit is unique to English.

  3. rbeard Says:

    Whitehead and Bertie Russell wrote Principia as the philosophical foundation of mathematics. If you are not a theoretical mathematician, you are not supposed to be able to understand it. There are far more interesting and entertaining books to read.

    As for semantic intensitification, I didn’t mean to leave the impression that semantic intensification is langauge-specific. It does occur in all languages; I can vouch for that. I examined, as I recall, 98 languages in connection with my research and found evidence of it in most of them. I presume the reason I didn’t find evidence of it in all of them is that the grammars I read simply didn’t have examples. I first noticed in in my research on Russian and Serbian.


  4. bnjtokyo Says:

    I agree with you that “drinkable wine” is intended to indicate “wine — minimally — capable of being drunk.” That this is so should be obvious to anyone who has encountered “undrinkable wine.” Although some people are like Peter Lorre in the short film made from E. A. Poe’s “The Black Cat” and find it all eminently drinkable, there are other sensitive souls who claim that some 10% of all wine on the market is infected with trichloroanisole and therefore undrinkable.

  5. rbeard Says:

    This was a consistency that Chomsky missed: words like “drinkable”, “playable”, “readable” have two senses determined by their context, i.e. the noun following it. If the noun following it is already drinkable, playable, readable by definition, then the semantic interpretation is that the speaker intended intensification. If not, then intensification does not apply.

    This carried over to the negatives that you mention. Since wine is not by definiton undrinkable (only 90% in the worst case scenario), then the semantic interpretation will not include intensification.

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