Printable Version
Pronunciation: ah-sten-sê-bêl, ê-sten-sê-bêl Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Apparent, seeming to be real or true. 2. Apparent but not so, not real or true. 3. Capable of being shown or exhibited.

Notes: This word is a passive adjective from the verb ostend "to show, manifest", used now only by philosophers. The verb does have a large family, though. The noun is ostension, the showing or exhibiting of things, such as 'the ostension of holy relics in a church'. Ostensible has a natural adverb, ostensibly, and noun, ostensibility.

In Play: This fine word is subtly ambivalent: it can be used with or without a negative connotation. "Conchita is the ostensible head of the company" may mean that she seems to be the head but we are not sure. However, it also may mean that she is pretending to be the head, and we know that she is not. So be careful how you apply it. It does retain its original meaning, able to be shown: "The company kept two sets of books: one ostensible, the other just for the eyes of the good old boys."

Word History: This Good Word was borrowed via French from Medieval Latin ostensibilis, an adjective from ostensus. Ostensus is the past participle of ostendere "to show", based on ob- "toward" + tendere "to stretch". (I get the image of an extended hand.) Down at the root of today's word is a distant relative of English thin, the root ten-/ton- "to stretch", also seen in the Latinate borrowings extend and tension. Tetanus comes from Greek tetanos "stiff, rigid", the state of something stretched. When you stretch a string (Greek tonos), you can produce a tone, and a tenor was once seen as someone who could hold (Latin tenere) a tone for a long stretch.

Dr. Goodword,

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