Pseudos and other pretentions

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Pseudos and other pretentions

The Greek word pseudein means “to lie.”  English uses this as a prefix (pseudo-) that can be put in front of almost anything to indicate an imitation or mimic. 

(As with many words taken into English from Greek, the initial “p” remains in the spelling but is not pronounced.) 

 There are a few words where the pseudo- has come to be joined with a word, but in special coinages (words you make up) you should separate them with a hyphen.

 To illustrate the power of this, here are a few examples:


Pseudo-Brit:  American slangy expression to refer to an American who affects an English (“Brit”) accent.  (Brit is sometimes used informally to refer to the British). 

Pseudo-intellectual: Derogatory description of someone who acts as though they knew a great deal (an intellectual), but, in fact, knows very little.  Such people make up “facts” as they go—such making up one’s facts is called “talking out of one’s hat.” 

Pseudo-expert: Another derogatory description, this time of someone who pretends to be an expert at something, but really is not (and may be dangerous if they have persuaded themselves that they are expert). 

Pseudo-gourmet:  Since gourmet is the word for someone with good taste in food, this would be someone who thinks they have good taste in food but in fact does not. 

Pseudo-Elvis:  Someone who dresses like Elvis Presley and imitates “the King’s” mannerisms. 

It is safe to make up words “on the fly”—what would “pseudo-salt” be?  Be careful, however, since the word pseudo applied to people is usually derogatory. 

That brings us to the word pseudo itself.  This has an interesting history, since the prefix pseudo- came into English first and the word pseudo was derived from the prefix.  Anyway, to call someone a pseudo is to say that they are not genuine, not real, a liar, a person who puts on false pretenses, someone who claims things about himself or herself that are not true, someone who makes grandiose plans but never carries them out, and so on. 

Here are a few important words that use the prefix pseudo as part of the word (no hyphen): 

Pseudonym: A fake name, not necessarily adopted to trick others but more often adopted by a celebrity of some sort to distinguish their public life from their private affairs.  (“Mark Twain” was the pseudonym of Samuel Clemens). 

Pseudopregnancy: A “false” pregnancy.  “I guess our dog had a pseudopregnancy—we thought she was going to have pups but they never came.” 

Pseudoscience: A superstition that behaves as though it were a scientific discipline—for example, astrology.  (Always remember: astrology is the pseudoscience, astronomy  is the real science). 

Pseudosophisticate: A person who pretends to great sophistication but is really a bumpkin

There also are many scientific words that use pseudo without a hyphen. 

Finally, there is pseudorandom.  This is something that looks random but really is not random.  Most physical processes are like that—we call a coin toss “random,” but in reality the outcome of tossing a coin is determined by many factors (the angle of the wrist, air pressure, how far the coin falls, etc.)  It seems random to us because we do not have the computational power to predict the outcome, but in fact it is not really random.  (In ordinary speech you would still call it random unless you want to point out the fact that it is in reality determined). 

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