Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.


Ask a Question!

Puzzled by Posh?
Confounded by Cattycorner?
Baffled by Balderdash?
Flummoxed by Flabbergast?
Perplexed by Pandemonium?
Nonplussed by... Nonplussed?
Annoyed by Alliteration?

Don't be shy!
Send in your question!




Alphabetical Index
of Columns January 2007 to present.


Archives 2006 – present

Old Archives

Columns from 1995 to 2006 are slowly being added to the above archives. For the moment, they can best be found by using the Search box at the top of this column.


If you would like to be notified when each monthly update is posted here, sign up for our free email notification list.






All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


TWD RSS feeds

Extend, Pretend, etc.

My back paystubs.

Dear Word Detective: I was driving into work this morning thinking that perhaps I should extend my vacation. That made me wonder: what is the relationship between “extend” and “pretend”? — Inesa.

I know the feeling. I used to get it all the time on my morning subway ride. Eventually I took a leave of absence from my job and just never went back. After a few years (!) they sent me a letter saying I no longer worked there, which is nice to know. But I still have anxious dreams of being yelled at for not filling out my time sheets. Oh well.

One thing’s clear when you start looking at the history of “extend” and “pretend”: you’re definitely going to get your money’s worth. Both words are members of a large family, call it “the Tends,” with lots of descendants.

In the beginning was the Proto-Indo-European root “ten,” meaning “to stretch” (source of the adjective and verb “tense”). From that came the Latin verb “tendere” (meaning “to stretch, point, direct, touch, offer”), and we were off and running. With the help of some common Latin prefixes, we ended up with scads of “tend” words, including “attend,” “contend,” “distend,” “intend,” “extend,” “portend,” “pretend,” “subtend” and, of course, “bartend.”

English actually has two verbs we might call “just plain tend,” which are considered separate words although they both come from “tendere.” “Tend” in the sense of “to care for, watch over” is actually an aphetic, or cropped, form of “attend,” which we borrowed from Old French in the 15th century and rests on the sense of “stretching” one’s mind, ears, eyes, etc., “towards” an object, person, etc. Our other “tend,” meaning “to have an inclination to do something” (“Bob tends to ignore instructions”), appeared in English around the same time.

“Intend” comes from the Latin “intendere,” meaning “to turn one’s attention to” (literally “to stretch toward”) which also included the sense of “to plan.” “Extend,” which appeared in the 14th century, was derived from the Latin “extendere,” meaning “to stretch out, expand.” The original, now obsolete, sense of “extend” implied strong stretching or straining, but the weaker sense of “straighten or extend” (as one “extends” one’s arm) had appeared by the late 14th century. The sense of “prolong in duration” first appeared in the late 16th century. Today we also use “extend” in senses including the geographic sense of “cover” (as in “His sales territory extends as far as California”) and “hold out, put forward” in (as in “He extended an offer of settlement to the victim”).

“Pretend,” which also appeared in English in the 14th century, comes ultimately from the Latin verb “praetendere” (“prae” meaning “before,” plus our old pal “tendere,” to stretch). One of the senses of the Latin verb, carried into Anglo-Norman and from there to English, was “to put forward as a pretext or reason; to deceptively allege.” So “pretend” has a long history of deception.

However, one interesting use of “pretend,” now largely obsolete, meant simply “to put forward a claim,” not necessarily with an implication of dishonest intent. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, a time of considerable governmental instability in Europe, there were a number of folks who asserted claims to various thrones, most notably in Britain. Some of these “pretenders to the throne” were deluded, some were the cat’s-paws of schemers and rogues, but some probably had a good case for being, say, Charles III (who failed in his efforts, and is known today as Bonnie Prince Charlie).


I’ll “reason why” if I feel like it, buckaroo.

Dear Word Detective: So is “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” related to the The League of Redheaded Gentlemen, The League of Nations, or Major League Baseball? If so, how and when did the word diverge to mean a unit of distance (about 3 miles as I understand it) and a collection of people or groups with a common purpose? — Barney Johnson.

Ah yes, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I first heard that read aloud by my fourth grade teacher during our annual Festival of Depressing Poems. I actually preferred “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, the moon bein’ a ghostly galleon above the purple moor and all. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is, of course, about the disastrous 1854 charge of British cavalry against Russian guns in “the Valley of Death” during the Crimean War.

The “league” in the poem is a unit of distance roughly equivalent to three miles, said to be based on the distance a person could walk in an hour. “League” was commonly used as a measure around the world at various points, but its definition was variable and “leagues” have long been of use only to poets. Wikipedia helpfully notes that the title of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” the 1870 Jules Verne science fiction novel about Captain Nemo and his Nautilus submarine, refers to “the distance traveled while under the sea and not to a depth, as 20,000 leagues is over six times the diameter, and nearly three times the circumference of the Earth.” I wish someone had told me that when I was twelve. I think I thought a league was, maybe, six feet. Of course, that would have meant the Light Brigade charged three feet, not 1-1/2 miles.

“League” first appeared in Late Middle English as “leuge,” and was based on the Late Latin “leuga.” The Latin word was apparently adopted by the Romans from Gaulish, a Celtic language spoken in what we now know as France. (Good first-year Latin students will have Caesar’s “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” — all Gaul is divided into three parts — knocking about their noggins at this point.) Sadly, the trail ends there, and the deeper roots of “league” in this “three miles” sense are obscure.

Unfortunately, none of this has anything to do with “league” in the “Major League Baseball” sense of an association, professional society or group, which is a completely separate word. On the bright side, we do know where this one came from. This “league” entered English in the 15th century (via both French and Italian) from the Latin “ligare,” meaning “to bind.” The first uses of this “league” were to mean an agreement or compact made among and “binding” nations or military or commercial parties for mutual protection of their joint interests (e.g., the League of Nations established in 1919). The use of “league” to mean “association, club, society, etc. with a common purpose or goal” dates to the mid-19th century (“The League was formed chiefly for the purpose of insuring a series of first-class games [etc.].” 1899).

This “league” is also commonly used today in a figurative sense to mean “a certain level in a hierarchy; class” (“She’s out of your league, me lad, and you’ll take a most almighty toss.” 1966). The older sense of “parties bound together by a common interest” is also alive and well in the phrase “in league with,” which usually implies covert and nefarious intent (“For anybody on the road might be a robber or in league with robbers.” Dickens, 1859).


Ask Chuck Norris! He was there.

Dear Word Detective: A few years ago, I began hearing a “new” word, new to me, anyway. It was everywhere! That word is “conflate.” Am I wrong in thinking it was made up to fill a need? Seems like a mash-up of “confuse” and “inflate,” although I don’t know how “inflate” could apply. “Confuse” I get, as I interpret “conflate” to mean to mistakenly compare one item with another. Has this younger generation made up another word? Or has “conflate” merely gained popularity, especially in discussions of a scientific nature? — Bunny Reynolds.

Dagnabbit, are those whippersnappers fiddling with our language again? I swan, I can’t abide any more foolishness from those hooligans. Twerking and tweeting and selfing all day. Take away their electronic telephones, I say.

Onward. This is an interesting question. On the one hand, I too have noticed an increased use of “conflate” recently, at least in mass media. I don’t remember hearing it at all when I was growing up, and, according to the Google Ngram viewer (which tracks occurrences of words in books that happen to be in the Google Books database) from 1800 to the present, usage of “conflate” in printed books piddled along at nearly zero until it started to rise in the 1960s and then shot up between 1980 and 2000. So you’re correct that the relative popularity of “conflate” is recent.

But, as the preceding paragraph implies, the word itself is not new. In fact, “conflate” first appeared in English way back in the mid-16th century. “Conflate” comes from the Latin “conflare” (“con,” together, plus “flare,” to blow), and originally meant “to fuse or blow together, to combine, to put together from several sources.” By the late 19th century, “conflate” had narrowed a bit and was primarily used to mean (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) “To combine or fuse two variant readings of a text into a composite reading; to form a composite reading or text by such fusion.” Today “conflate” is commonly used more broadly to mean “to confuse two things by combining them or equating them” (e.g., “Buzzfeed has been criticized for conflating real news and the antics of the Kardashians.”). “Conflation” is the particular kind of “confusion” that comes when disparate items or events are combined into one, resulting in “confusing” what actually happened or was said, which brings us, of course, to Brian Williams, aka The Great Conflator.

In early 2015, NBC News anchor Williams was embroiled in a media fracas when he recounted his story of being in a helicopter that was struck by a rocket propelled grenade over Iraq in 2003, a misfortune that had actually befallen a chopper flying an hour ahead of his. Long story short (and it is a complex situation), Williams eventually said that he had “conflated” two separate incidents and apparently “misremembered” what had happened. Given that most people believed he had simply lied, that excuse didn’t fly (he was suspended for six months and then banished to MSNBC). More importantly for this discussion, his high-profile use of “conflate” sent the word rocketing to the top of the list of words being looked up in the online dictionary. So the good news is that more people now know what “conflate” means. The bad news may be that they’re going to use it to explain their fibs.