By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What’s the technical term for talking about yourself in the third person? Or using the royal ‘we’ when you aren’t a king or queen? Words, of course, are the tools of the writer’s trade. But what are some good words, perhaps even some unusual but wonderfully descriptive words, which mean ‘pretentious’ or ‘pompous’?
Here are some of the best, most useful, as well as some of the most unusual synonyms to describe pretentious people, pretentious speech, and pretentious behaviour. And, of course, pretentious writing. If you find this list useful, you might also enjoy this discussion of incompetent synonyms, these synonyms for selfish, and these synonyms for ridiculous.
POMPOUS. As you’d expect, this synonym for ‘pretentious’ is from the word pomp, meaning a splendid display (from the French, ultimately from Latin). If you’re pompous, you’re full of exaggerated self-importance. The OED cites Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (‘The Monk’s Tale’) as the earliest known use: ‘Was neuere capitayn vnder a kyng / Ne moore pompous in heigh presumpcioun / Than Oloferne.’
AFFECTED. If you ‘affect’ something, you either have an impact on it (i.e. the weather has affected the decision to call off the cricket match) or ‘assume a false appearance of; to put on a pretence of, to counterfeit or pretend’ (OED). So someone’s manner might not only be pretentious but affected, because they have put it on; it’s fake.
LOFTY. ‘Lofty’ means high, of course, and in this sense, it’s alternative word for ‘pretentious’ because it means assuming a certain airiness or grandeur – but again, it’s put on or assumed rather than inherent.
GRANDIOSE. Although it originally (early nineteenth century) referred to something that was actually grand or majestic, the word ‘grandiose’, within twenty years or so (and certainly by 1840) had come to mean ‘pretentious’ or having delusions of grandeur. And that is the meaning that has stuck.
UPPISH. First cited in 1789, this word means ‘stuck up’ or ‘putting on airs’ – especially someone who is aiming at gentility (and usually misses).
AEOLISTIC. Until now, we’ve largely been dealing with synonyms to describe a person who is pretentious; but of course, one’s speech or writing can also be pretentious. Or, indeed, ‘aeolistic’ meaning ‘long-winded’, from Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds in classical mythology. In use since the nineteenth century.
GRANDILOQUENT. Found in print from the late Elizabethan era, this word means ‘characterized by a high-flown, extravagant, or bombastic style or manner, esp. in language’ (OED). It is also the first of several ‘-loquent’ words on this list of pretentious synonyms…
LONGILOQUENT. Alternatively, pretentious and lengthy speech or writing – what we also call ‘a load of hot air’ – can be described as longiloquent, or long-winded. The word comes from the Latin meaning ‘long-speaking’.
ALTILOQUENT. Similarly, if someone is ‘altiloquent’, they’re speaking pompously or in a high-flown manner. From the Latin altus, meaning ‘high’ (as in altitude, altimeter, and so on).
VANILOQUENT. If someone is vaniloquent, they’re talking vainly or idly. The great eighteenth-century lexicographer Nathan Bailey, who was a forerunner to Samuel Johnson in English dictionary-making, included the word in his 1727 Universal Etymological English Dictionary.
FLOSCULENT. Here’s an obsolete but rather lovely word: flosculation is ‘speaking in a flowery way’, so flosculent speech is flowery speech. Recorded in the seventeenth century, but worth reviving.
PLEIONOSIS. A rare word meaning ‘exaggeration of one’s own importance’.
BLOVIATOR. A bloviator is someone who talks at length about issues in which they pretend to be expert, but of which they know very little. So a pretentious person is quite often also a bloviator (though not always).
NOSISM. Another rare word, originating in the nineteenth century, but a good noun to describe a very pretentious practice: the practice of referring to yourself as ‘we’. If you’re the monarch, fair enough; but otherwise, please say ‘I am not amused’ rather than ‘we are not amused’.
ILLEISM. Related to nosism, and also relevant when seeking for alternative words to describe pretentious behaviour: an illeist is someone who refers to themselves in the third person, e.g. John saying ‘John thinks this is a good idea’ rather than ‘I think this is a good idea’.
A good example from literature is Major Bagstock from Dickens’s Dombey and Son, who says of himself: ‘He’s tough, sir, tough, is old Joey Bagstock, tough and devilish sly.’ However, the OED notes that this word is ‘apparently only in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.’ Perhaps it’s time to change that?
AUTOHAGIOGRAPHER. A person who writes in a smug way about their own accomplishments. (Hagiography is writing about saints.)
BLAGUEUR. Someone who talks pretentiously. From the French blague meaning ‘humbug’ or ‘pretentious falsehood’.
KOMPOLOGY. Braggadocio, bragging; a rare word dating from the late nineteenth century and derived ultimately from the ancient Greek for ‘boast’ and ‘speaking’.
AMPOLLOSITY. Bombastic or pompous style.
LEXIPHANIC. Here’s an extremely rare word, derived from the name Lexiphanes (Greek for ‘phrase-monger’, but literally meaning ‘word-showing’), the title of one of Lucian’s dialogues. A Lexiphanes is someone who uses bombastic phraseology (OED).
COCKALORUM. A little man with delusions of grandeur, thought to be derived from a conjurer’s call to announce the end of a magic trick (a variant of ‘abracadabra’).
The word cockalorum has also been used to describe self-important behaviour: in her History of England, written when she was a teenager, Jane Austen wrote: ‘Whether she really understood that language or whether such a Study proceeded only from an excess of Cockylorum [corrected in the same hand to vanity] … is uncertain.’
BOSCO PERTWEE. We’ll conclude with a useful phrase or term which has been used to catch out pretentious show-offs who mouth off about things they probably know very little about.
Bosco Pertwee is an invented name used to trap pretentious people who pretend to know everything: for instance, at a party, if you suspect someone of pretending to know about obscure modernist poets, you might say to them, ‘What do you think of the work of Bosco Pertwee?’ If they reply by launching into a long (and aeolistic, and quite fabricated) speech in which they pretend to know all about the fictional Bosco Pertwee, you know they’re talking nonsense.
This concludes our pick of the best synonyms for pretentious people, talk, and behaviour (and writing). Of course, there are many others we could have included, but we opted for the most interesting as well as the most directly useful. Which other useful words describing pretentiousness would you add to this list?
A number of pretentious critics were fooled by William Boyd’s hoax biography of the imaginary painter Nat Tate
assisted (abetted ?) by a review by Gore Vidal.
Some of those are great!
In everyday conversation, I think the most commons synonym is “asshole” :)
Although, to accuse someone of being flosculent might be rather, um, pretentious.