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pretending or feigning: a pretense of listening; a false show of something: his sympathy was only a pretense; an allegation or claim: get a loan under false pretenses; shamming; semblance; mask, veil
Not to be confused with:
pretext – something put forward to conceal a true purpose; an ostensible reason; excuse: The leaders used presumed threats as a pretext to declare war.; subterfuge; evasion
Abused, Confused, & Misused Words by Mary Embree Copyright © 2007, 2013 by Mary Embree


 (prē′tĕns′, prĭ-tĕns′)
a. A false appearance or action intended to deceive: "He ran the back of his hand up her cheek, with the pretense of wiping away sweat" (Jonathan Safran Foer).
b. A professed but feigned reason or excuse; a pretext: left the room under the pretense of having to make a phone call.
2. Something imagined or pretended: "Ardor had atrophied and weariness had taken its place ... their connection was pretense" (Deborah Weisgall).
a. The quality or state of being pretentious; ostentation: so modest as to be free from any hint of pretense.
b. A false or studied show; an affectation: models making a pretense of nonchalance.
4. A claim or assertion to a right, especially a false one: "a celebrity with scarcely any pretense to talent or achievement" (Joseph Epstein).

[Middle English, from Old French pretensse, from Medieval Latin *praetēnsa, from Late Latin, feminine of praetēnsus, alteration of Latin praetentus, past participle of praetendere, to pretend, assert; see pretend.]
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


(prɪˈtɛns, ˈpri tɛns)

1. a false show of something; semblance: a pretense of friendship.
2. a pretending or feigning; make-believe: My sleepiness was all pretense.
3. the act of pretending or alleging falsely.
4. an ostensible claim or justification; pretext: He excused himself on a pretense of urgent business; to obtain money under false pretenses.
5. insincere or false profession: pious words that were mere pretense.
6. an unwarranted or false claim.
7. pretension (usu. fol. by to): no pretense to wit.
8. pretentiousness.
[1375–1425; late Middle English < Anglo-French < Medieval Latin *praetēnsa, n. use of feminine of praetēnsus, past participle (replacing Latin praetentus) of praetendere to pretend]
Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.



(See also HYPOCRISY.)

ass in a lion’s skin A pretender; a fool posing as a sage. The allusion is to the fable of an ass that donned a lion’s skin in an attempt to masquerade as the noble beast, but betrayed itself by its braying.

beware of Greeks bearing gifts Distrust the kindnesses of known enemies; suspect an ulterior motive when adversaries act as benefactors. This warning to look for guile lest one be made the victim of treachery is a variation on the words of Laocoön in Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid:

Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they bring gifts.

The lines were spoken in reference to the so-called Trojan horse, left outside the gates of Troy supposedly as a gift or peace-offering from the Greeks, with whom Troy was at war. Laocoön’s advice went unheeded, however, and the horse was brought inside the city gates; the Greeks hidden therein thus successfully sacked Troy and razed it to the ground.

four-flusher A bluffer; a pretender; a deadbeat, particularly one who pretends to have money but sponges or borrows from others. This expression derives from the card game of poker in which a flush is a hand (set of five cards) with all cards of the same suit. A four-flush is a hand with four cards of one suit and one card of another suit—worthless in poker. A good bluffer, particularly one who is poker-faced, upon finding himself with a four-flush, might bet in such a way as to make the other players think he is holding a five-card flush—almost a certain winner. Since this kind of bluffing requires heavy betting and involves a substantial risk, many a four-flusher has overextended himself and been unable to cover his losses. Thus, the expression was extended from its poker reference to its current, more general application.

So, perhaps, was a four-flushing holdup man named Gunplay Maxwell. (Wallace Stegner, Mormon Country, 1942)

fox’s sleep Pretended indifference to what is going on; noticing or observing a person, situation, or event without seeming to do so. This expression refers to the belief that foxes sleep with one eye open. Although this is not true in the literal sense, foxes and many other animals seem to remain on a “stand-by alert” when they sleep, ready for action and totally awake on a moment’s notice. A related expression is sleep with one eye open.

iron hand in a velvet glove Tyranny, harshness, or inflexibility hidden under a soft, gentle exterior. At least one source has attributed this expression, in use since about 1850, to Napoleon. One of the several variations of the expression appeared in The Victorian Hansard (January, 1876):

They [the Government] have dealt with the Opposition with a velvet glove; but the iron hand is beneath, and they shall feel it.

look as if butter wouldn’t melt in one’s mouth Used contemptuously to describe a person of deceptively modest appearance, a goody-goody. The implication is always that the person’s true nature is something quite different from what it seems. Hugh Latimer uses the expression, which dates from the early 1500s, in his Seven Sermons Made Upon The Lord’s Prayer (1552):

These fellows … can speak so finely, that a man would think butter should scant melt in their mouths.

method in one’s madness A reason, plan, or orderliness that is obscured by a person’s apparent or feigned insanity or stupidity. This expression developed from a line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t. (II, ii)

It has enjoyed widespread popular usage since the 17th century.

He may be mad, but there’s method in his madness. There nearly always is method in madness. It’s what drives men mad being methodical. (Gilbert K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1922)

paper tiger See INEFFECTUALLY.

play possum To deceive or dissemble; to sham illness or death. This expression alludes to the opossum’s defense mechanism of feigning death to ward off predators. In contemporary usage, the common phrase often suggests the feigning of ignorance.

By last week, in the Senate investigation of Washington five-percenters, it became plain that John had been playing possum the whole time. (Time, September, 1949)

Quaker guns Empty threats; harmless barbs; all bark and no bite. This expression comes from the former use of counterfeit guns, simulated to bluff the enemy into thinking that a ship or fort was well-fortified. Such were described as “Quaker” owing to that sect’s doctrine of nonviolence. This U.S. expression is rarely heard today.

“He’s like a Quaker gun,” said Haxall—“piles of appearance, but no damage done.” (Ella L. Dorsey, Midshipman Bob, 1888)

ringer A person or thing entered in a contest under false pretenses; a person or thing bearing an uncanny resemblance to another. The expression’s first sense usually implies the misrepresentation of the contender’s identity or potential. Although this American term finds its principal use in the horse-racing world, it may be applied to human competitors as well.

As a ringer in the Sadie Hawkins race, she was last heard of pursuing a panic-stricken Dogpatcher. (Newsweek, November, 1947)

The phrase’s meaning of two nearly identical persons or things, most often expressed as dead ringer, is quite common in the United States.

I saw once … an outlaw … who was a dead ringer for him. (O. Henry, Options, 1909)

sail under false colors To pretend or appear to be what one is not; to put up a false front or façade; to act or speak hypocritically. In the days when buccaneers plundered on the open seas, it was common practice for a pirate ship to hoist the colors (flag) of a potential victim’s ally in order to sneak up on the ship without arousing suspicion. At the last moment, the pirates would lower the false colors, “show their true colors,” the Jolly Roger, and attack. This expression and its variations are now used figuratively.

Our female candidate … will no longer hang out false colors. (Sir Richard Steele, The Spectator, 1711)

sly-boots See SHREWDNESS.

wolf in sheep’s clothing One who hides his true evil intentions or character behind a façade of friendship; a hypocrite or deceiver. This expression derives from an Aesop fable in which a wolf, wrapped in the fleece of a sheep, enters the fold and proceeds to devour the unsuspecting lambs. A wolf in a lamb’s skin, in use as early as 1460, seems to be an older variation of the current phrase, which did not appear until 1591. A well-known Biblical passage has served to increase the phrase’s familiarity:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15)

Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary, 1st Edition. © 1980 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
ThesaurusAntonymsRelated WordsSynonymsLegend:
Noun1.pretense - the act of giving a false appearancepretense - the act of giving a false appearance; "his conformity was only pretending"
dissimulation, deception, dissembling, deceit - the act of deceiving
show, appearance - pretending that something is the case in order to make a good impression; "they try to keep up appearances"; "that ceremony is just for show"
pretend, make-believe - the enactment of a pretense; "it was just pretend"
affectation, affectedness, mannerism, pose - a deliberate pretense or exaggerated display
masquerade - making a false outward show; "a beggar's masquerade of wealth"
2.pretense - pretending with intention to deceive
deception, misrepresentation, deceit - a misleading falsehood
bluff - pretense that your position is stronger than it really is; "his bluff succeeded in getting him accepted"
pretext, stalking-horse - something serving to conceal plans; a fictitious reason that is concocted in order to conceal the real reason
hypocrisy, lip service - an expression of agreement that is not supported by real conviction
3.pretense - imaginative intellectual playpretense - imaginative intellectual play  
imagery, imaging, mental imagery, imagination - the ability to form mental images of things or events; "he could still hear her in his imagination"
4.pretense - a false or unsupportable quality
artificiality - the quality of being produced by people and not occurring naturally
5.pretense - an artful or simulated semblancepretense - an artful or simulated semblance; "under the guise of friendship he betrayed them"
semblance, gloss, color, colour - an outward or token appearance or form that is deliberately misleading; "he hoped his claims would have a semblance of authenticity"; "he tried to give his falsehood the gloss of moral sanction"; "the situation soon took on a different color"
Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2012 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.


1. The presentation of something false as true:
2. A display of insincere behavior:
3. Artificial behavior adopted to impress others:
affectation, affectedness, air (used in plural), mannerism, pose.
4. A professed rather than a real reason:
6. A legitimate or supposed right to demand something as one's rightful due:
Slang: dibs.
The American Heritage® Roget's Thesaurus. Copyright © 2013, 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
On his way he met a man on horseback who begged the hare of him, under the pretense of purchasing it.
I make small pretense of showing anyone how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea--other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.
You will not take it amiss if I express my strong disapproval of your allowing yourself, on any pretense whatever, to be mixed up for the future with your sister's proceedings.
"You may charge me with murder--or want of sense--(We are all of us weak at times): But the slightest approach to a false pretense Was never among my crimes!
In a hasty study like the present the reasons for Hamlet's pretense of madness can be arrived at only by starting not only with some knowledge of the details of the earlier versions but with some definite theory.
"Yes, now he has laid aside all pretense, and all his cold hatred for me is apparent," she thought, not hearing his words, but watching with terror the cold, cruel judge who looked mocking her out of his eyes.
She would have pretended to be looking for something on the table, but ashamed of making a pretense, she looked straight in his face with cold eyes.
They would each choose to have some counterpoise, and pretenses could easily be contrived.
Should this at any time happen, how easy would it be to fabricate pretenses of approaching danger!
"In the third place, I have good reason to believe that you entered Miss Ladd's school as a teacher, under false pretenses. After that discovery, I tell you plainly I hesitate to attach credit to any statement that you may wish to make.
I leave you to decide whether the woman who has shown you that letter--having something important to say to you--is a person who is mean enough to say it under false pretenses."
Judge Aphrodite Konduros, writing for a unanimous court in an April 17 opinion, agreed, ruling that the false pretense charge should have been tossed out, and the prosecutor's comments were inappropriate enough to require a mistrial.