What is the word for understanding someones implied meaning, but being completely pretentious about it and taking their words for what they literally said?

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    The habit of "taking their words for what they literally said" is literal-mindedness. The habit of pretending to do this, (whilst actually understanding the "implied/intended" meaning perfectly well) could reasonably be called pretentiousness, but a better choice might be disingenuous - pretending to be unaware or unsophisticated; faux-naïf. Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 15:33
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    This is one of the meanings of pedantic.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 17:53

3 Answers 3


"fake or disingenuous literal-mindedness" as FumbleFingers has mentioned in his comment, seems to be the phrase you're looking for.

literal-mindedness (noun) the quality or state of tending to take words in their literal sense. Collins

"Most children under the age of five are naturally literal-minded. It takes a crafty adult to fake literal-mindedness."

  • Why not disingenuous rather than pretentious, as also per FumbleFinger's comment. It's more specific than pretentious.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 15:47
  • It works, but disingenuous is still more specifically about this sort of faking.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 15:50
  • Yes, except your "most children under five" example doesn't exactly match OP's context. Young children usually don't really understand metaphorically/idiomatically implied meanings, so they're not pretending to be fooled by an irrelevant literal meaning. Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 17:08
  • @FumbleFingers The sentence "most children..." is an example of "literal-minded" not "fake literal-mindedness". I'm including the later to improve my example.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 22:02
  • Neat edit :) Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 2:26

A related word which ODO and OED define as

Annoyingly unperceptive or slow to understand; stupid; insensitive. Also, of a remark, action, etc.: exhibiting dullness, stupidity or insensitivity; clumsy, unsubtle.

is obtuse.

So when one is deliberately unperceptive, or deliberately clumsy or unsubtle, one is being deliberately obtuse.


"Work to rule" or "white mutiny" is a form of "malicious compliance", in which employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of their contract, and precisely follow safety or other regulations "by the book" or "to the letter of the law rather than its spirit" in order to cause a slowdown, rather than to serve their purposes.

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