"Ostensibly the main target"

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John Leicester, Raf Casert, and Lori Hinnant, "In remembering WWI, world warned of resurging 'old demons'", Associated Press 11/11/2018 [emphasis added]:

As Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and dozens of other heads of state and government listened in silence, French President Emmanuel Macron used the occasion, as its host, to sound a powerful and sobering warning about the fragility of peace and the dangers of nationalism and of nations that put themselves first, above the collective good.

"The old demons are rising again, ready to complete their task of chaos and of death," Macron said.

"Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism," he said. "In saying 'Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,' you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: Its moral values."

Trump, ostensibly the main target of Macron's message, sat stony-faced.

In the same context, "obviously" rather than "ostensibly" would mean that Macron seemed to target Trump, and the writers agree that this appearance is accurate. And "apparently" would mean that that Macron appeared to target Trump, but the writers aren't committing themselves on the question one way or another. With "ostensibly", the sentence seems to mean that Macron pretended to attack Trump, but the writers believe that he really had another target in mind.

That was my reaction, anyhow. But I wondered whether I might be over-interpreting an occasional implicature of "ostensibly", so I checked.

The OED glosses ostensibly as "In an ostensible manner; avowedly, declaredly, professedly. Usually distinguished from, and often implicitly or explicitly opposed to, actually or really: apparently, but not necessarily or really"; and glosses ostensible as "Declared, avowed, professed; presented (esp. untruthfully or misleadingly) as actual; stated or appearing to be genuine, but not necessarily so. Frequently implicitly or explicitly opposed to actual or real."

Merriam-Webster glosses ostensibly as "in an ostensible manner", with ostensible glossed as "being such in appearance : plausible rather than demonstrably true or real"

The American Heritage gloss for ostensible is "Represented or appearing as such; ostensive: His ostensible purpose was charity, but his real goal was popularity"

Wiktionary glosses ostensible as 'Appearing as such; being such in appearance; professed, supposed (rather than demonstrably true or real)", and give the example sentence

The ostensible reason for his visit to New York was to see his mother, but the real reason was to get to the Yankees game the next day.

On the other hand, the OED also gives ostensible the gloss "That presents itself to or is open to view; visible, noticeable; conspicuous, ostentatious. Now rare." And in legal jargon, an ostensible agent is "a person who has been given the appearance of being an employee or acting (an agent) for another (principal), which would make anyone dealing with the ostensible agent reasonably believe he/she was an employee or agent".

So maybe there's been some implicature creep, and ostensibly really only means apparently?



26 Comments

  1. JeffS said,

    November 11, 2018 @ 9:27 pm

    Is not "presumably" the mot juste for that sentence?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 11, 2018 @ 9:54 pm

    "Evidently".

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 11, 2018 @ 10:27 pm

    Obviously/presumably/apparently all have the problem of suggesting the authors take or are inclined to the view in question, so it is not surprising they searched for a single word which might mean "in the view of many (but who are we to say)"… not a great choice. Maybe "…, presumed to be…" would have been more journalisty.

  4. Mark P said,

    November 11, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

    This would have been a good opportunity for the writer to let readers draw their own conclusions instead of inserting a personal observation, no matter how apt it might be.

  5. TIC said,

    November 11, 2018 @ 11:33 pm

    I agree that "ostensibly" is an odd, if not downright poor, choice… It certainly implies, at least to me, that the writers believe, or at least suspect, that Trump was not in fact the intended (main) target… But they then say nothing to support that apparent implicature — which leads me to believe that they didn't really suspect, and intend to suggest, an ulterior target… I'd've gone with "presumably"… Or possibly "seemingly"?…

  6. TIC said,

    November 11, 2018 @ 11:41 pm

    On further reflection — unless (as the writer)I intended to go into more detail about why Trump was likely the (main) target — I might've opted for "possibly"…

  7. eub said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 12:08 am

    This reminds me of the word "fulsome", which I keep seeing in news stories being used in a positive sense that jars me — something like "full, complete", where I expect it to mean "cloying, fawning". A fulsome(?) stream of "fulsome report": https://goo.gl/7vstJo

    But apparently that this non-deprecatory sense (which is the etymological sense of the word) is back in use, and for longer than the few years I've started noticing it. "The result is that fulsome is now used with positive or neutral connotations at least as often as with negative connotations" (undated), https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/fulsome

  8. AG said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 1:47 am

    I've seen "restive" used to mean "restful" a couple times recently.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 2:00 am

    To me, the use of ostensibly would mean, or at minimum imply very heavily, that Trump was presented as being the main target when the reality was otherwise. I'd just interpret this as an error on the part of the writer(s).

    I'm a little more surprised by the AHD's gloss of "ostensive". I don't think I've ever seen that word before.

  10. Adam F said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 2:55 am

    "supposably" :-P

  11. Michael Watts said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 3:22 am

    I don't see a problem with the form "ostensive"… we have "intensive" and "extensive". We don't have "attensive", but we do have "attentive", and fascinatingly this confusion appears to be more or less reflected in Latin — the words dictionary gives tentus/tensus as alternative fourth principle parts of tendo,tendere,tetendi… , but lists only the t-form for attendo and intendo, while ostendo and extendo have t- and s-forms listed.

    (Weirdy, the dictionary seems to treat ostensus and ostentus as spelling variations which share a single set of glosses, while extensus and extentus are treated as the separate fourth principle parts of two distinct verbs which coincidentally happen to have identical first, second, and third principle parts, and also identical (but distinct) sets of glosses.)

    But I don't recognize the word "ostensive"; I would have said the relevant form (in English) was "ostensible".

    Did you stop commenting as "neminem"?

  12. Max Wheeler said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 3:33 am

    'Ostensive definition' could be familiar to Language Log readers.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 3:38 am

    And indeed, COCA has 13 recorded uses of "ostensive", compared to 414 of "ostensible". All 13 occur in academic journals, and two of them appear to be drawing on the fixed phrase "ostensive and demonstrative", which I assume makes sense to one or more art history scholars.

  14. Saurs said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 4:11 am

    Well, you're leaving out that Macron, advocating for stronger European unity in the face of international rat-fucking (USA and Russia-style), was most definitely addressing the Polish and Hungarian governments, along with the nascent right-wing, white ethnonationalist parties fronting as populists whose power and influence are expanding throughout the continent. Not everything is always and exclusively about the US and Americans, bless our hearts. European news agencies picked up on this, of course, what with the fascist Polish street marchers yesterday (which, again and increasingly unsurprisingly, the US media didn't cover, because it chooses to believe in, or is paid to appear that it does, Trumpism as something exceptionally modern or American rather than banal, old-hat, and nearly old as Moses).

  15. Michael said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 6:43 am

    You are presuming a rather intelligent journalist…

  16. Brian said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 9:58 am

    A bit of a tangent, but "ostensible" is one of those English words that has few, if any, satisfactory synonyms — to the point that, on occasions where I'm writing and I can't remember the word, I feel like I can't rephrase my idea but instead have no choice but to seek help to remember it. (And then I get in trouble when my helper asks for a synonym….)

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

    Re synonyms, for the core sense of "apparent but probably not actual," I should think "purported" and/or "supposed" are pretty good synonyms. Lawyers use both of those a lot as modifiers for words the other side wants to be true and they don't want to be true. My impressionistic sense is that those words both probably get used more in lawyers' briefs than "ostensible," come to think of it, although I don't know if there's really a good corpus of legal briefs out there that would enable that impression to be empirically tested.

  18. philip said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

    What Saurs said … and Putin might be the actual target, as he was sitting there too.

  19. DMT said,

    November 12, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

    I would agree with Victor Mair that "evidently" is the what the writer evidently intended.

    The relationship between "ostensibly" ("apparently but probably not actually") and "evidently" ("apparently and almost certainly also actually") is close enough that it is easy to slip up and use the wrong one.

  20. Alyssa said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 12:25 am

    I think what the writer intended to convey was "other people are claiming this, but we have no data (or opinion) one way or the other". For me, that's a plausible use of the word, I don't feel "ostensibly" has to be limited to cases where the speaker thinks the statement is false.

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 1:07 am

    I would suggest that, if that was their intent – to disavow making the claim themselves – they should have written something like "Meanwhile President Trump sat stony-faced.", leaving the reader to draw the inference.

    Sometimes mistakes just are mistakes, and I wouldn't say from this one that the meaning of 'ostensibly' has changed.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  22. George said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 9:22 am

    Well, yes, it may just be a mistake but if we assume that the journalist does know what 'ostensibly' means, then Saurs is probably right. Trump was obviously a target but may not have been the main target. After all, there's little that Macron – or any European leader – can do about Trump beyond complaining but it's a different story where other EU member states are concerned, so the message carries more real-world weight.

  23. JJM said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 10:39 am

    Saurs: "Well, you're leaving out that Macron, advocating for stronger European unity in the face of international rat-fucking (USA and Russia-style), was most definitely addressing the Polish and Hungarian governments, along with the nascent right-wing, white ethnonationalist parties fronting as populists whose power and influence are expanding throughout the continent. Not everything is always and exclusively about the US and Americans, bless our hearts. European news agencies picked up on this, of course, what with the fascist Polish street marchers yesterday (which, again and increasingly unsurprisingly, the US media didn't cover, because it chooses to believe in, or is paid to appear that it does, Trumpism as something exceptionally modern or American rather than banal, old-hat, and nearly old as Moses)."

    Don't hold back now. Tell us how you really feel.

  24. Bert said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 11:22 am

    Perhaps, what the writer actually meant to say was "While Macron ostensibly adressed no-one in particular, it was very clear who the real target of his message was…", which then got blended into one sentence.

  25. Bathrobe said,

    November 13, 2018 @ 5:18 pm

    While we're noting the way that traditional usages are being overturned, "advocating for" (see Saurs) is another usage that has crept in very rapidly in the past 30 or 40 years. Previously it would have been plain "advocating".

  26. jonquil snaig said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 8:41 am

    I should have thought that the most interesting linguistic point here was the linguistic point Macron was touching on, rather than the error discussed above.

    I said to my Chinese students that he is essentially rather absurdly saying "aiguozhuyi", love of country, is both a very good and a very bad thing, taking the same concept with merely a negative slant and positive slant on the English words.

    In general nationalism is translated in Chinese as "minzhuzhuyi", perhaps to give it a negative slant, but this seems wrong. This means love of your race, or people, and patriotism is perhaps closer to that.

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