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• pretexting •

 [Podcast] Pronunciation: pree-tek-sting Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 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 restricted information.

Notes: Today's shady word came by 'verbing' the noun pretext "a fictitious reason dreamed up to conceal the real reason for something". The word was rediscovered by those reporting the 2006 Hewlett-Packard scandal. September 5th of that year Newsweek revealed that the board chair of HP, Patricia Dunn, had hired a team of security experts to spy on HP board members to determine the source of HP company secrets published on the Web. The security experts pretexted themselves as board members and journalists in order to obtain telephone records of HP board members, a practice that is illegal. Ms. Dunn resigned as board chair.

In Play: It is odd that the practice of pretexting was widespread throughout the 20th century but that the verb describing the practice surfaced only recently. Jim Rockford, the detective in the TV series of the 1970s, The Rockford Files, obtained most of his information by pretexting. In fact, most detectives, like con men, obtain information in precisely this way. But the use of the noun pretext as a verb goes back to the end of the 18th century, when Horace Walpole wrote in Memoirs of the reign of king George the third (1797), "A decency was observed, and conscience always pretexted."

Word History: Today's word comes from Latin praetextum, the neuter past participle of praetexere "to disguise", a verb made up of prae- "before, in front of" + texere "to weave". (Yep, there it is again in textile and text.) Remember, now, that X represents two linguistic sounds, [k+s], so this root may be broken at tek-. This is how it was possible for it to emerge in Greek at techne [tek-ne] "art, craft, skill", borrowed in such English words as technique and technology. In German, the same root became Dachs "badger", an animal apparently named for its skill at burrowing. We know this word from the name of the dog that once hunted badgers without pretexting: the dachshund.

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