Fake mobsters in suits and spats are pretentious. But a horse head in your bed? That's portentous. And also, call the police.
A regular person who insists on using the royal "we" is pretentious. Find the word "pretend" in pretentious and you're onto something — both words come from the same Latin root. Pretending is fun, but anything pretentious is a bummer because it's fanciful and untrue. Examples:
"Eva's colleagues eventually turn on her and deem her uppity and pretentious; one day, someone in the office steals the diary." (The New Yorker)
"Well, the film was a bore, with far too many pretentious slow-motion surfing shots or close-ups of foam and bubbles." (Los Angeles Times)
Portentous is darker. The word comes from the Latin portentosus for "marvelous, threatening," oh, and also "monster." A funnel cloud, a horse head, or a letter from an ex, are all portentoussigns. It overlaps with pretentious because portentous also describes someone trying hard to seem important, like a human pufferfish. But it's usually a sign of things to come, like a portent, or omen. Observe:
"But above them all looms one legendary beast: the great white whale, Moby-Dick, freighted with portentous doom." (The Guardian)
"Some are table-centered domestic scenes: silent intimacies, fights over a portentous envelope." (The New Yorker)
If you get them mixed up, remember that pretentious has an "i" at the end, and portentous has an "o" for "omen."
The black crows slowly circling the front entrance to your office building at 6:00 am may have a portentous quality, meaning it seems like they’re an omen indicating something bad will happen. Continue reading...