In a word: specious

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


You probably know Thomas Henry Huxley's remark, "Science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact,” a sad reflection that what looks attractive to us may prove to be of little or no value.

We have a word for it the phenomenon. Specious (pronounced SPEE-shus) from the Latin speciosus, "fair," "beautiful," originally meant "Fair or pleasing to the eye or sight; beautiful, handsome, lovely; resplendent with beauty," the Oxford English Dictionary tells us. That was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. "Specyous & beautyfull is he, aboue all the chylder of men," in Bonde's Pylgrimage of Perfeccyon, (1531). 

But as English grew older and wiser, that sense became obsolete. Today something we call specious looks attractive but is devoid of substance or value, even deceitful. In Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel (1681) we have "a smooth pretence / Of specious love, and duty to their Prince."

We like to use the word today particularly in describing arguments, meaning plausible-sounding but fallacious. Sophistry. You won't have to look far. 

Example: From a 2008 Washington Post opinion piece by Kwame Anthony Appiah: "As Yale scholars Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro have shown, it mattered more that proponents of repeal made a moral argument (however specious): that the tax was unfair because, for one thing, it involved taxing earnings twice."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad