What is a word or idiom for a fellow who pretends to understand something, but doesn't. This person is fundamentally confused, and often goes to great lengths to convince others of their expertise and knowledge, but intellectually, really hasn't a clue.

12 Answers 12


The person is a poseur (or poser) with respect to understanding.

Noun: poseur pow'zur

A person who habitually pretends to be something he is not

  • poser

-- WordWeb

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  • /pow'zur/ is a rather horrible way to write that; any of /ˈpozɚ/, /ˈpozəɹ/, /ˈpoʊzɚ/, or /ˈpoʊzəɹ/ — even /pozœʁ/ — would have been better. :) – tchrist Jun 8 '17 at 1:47
  • Only because that w should be an e. The rest of that's in Greek I think. – Mazura Jun 8 '17 at 2:44
  • Or just "pretender". – henning -- reinstate Monica Jun 8 '17 at 14:20
  • @henning: pretender doesn't have quite the same connotations: (1) A person who makes deceitful pretenses, (2) A person who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives – Drew Jun 8 '17 at 14:31

You can use Charlatan.

Its meaning in the Cambridge dictionary is

a person who pretends to have skills or knowledge that they do not have.

You should also check out its synonyms and related idioms at the above link to see which one better suits your purpose.

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    This is the best answer so far, but I think it should be pointed out that "Charlatan" definitely has the connotation of deliberate deceit or intent to defraud, while it does not have the connotation that the charlatan is unaware of his lack of knowledge. – Lee Daniel Crocker Jun 7 '17 at 17:32
  • @Lee Daniel Crocker, I thought the OP wants the connotation of an intention to defraud. No? – thomj1332 Jun 7 '17 at 20:56
  • I don't think he's clear either way. – Lee Daniel Crocker Jun 7 '17 at 21:17
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    The OP seems to be asking for a label to describe someone who is 'pretending to understand' something that someone else is saying (so as not to appear stupid or slow). This is not the same as a charlatan - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlatan – Dan Jun 7 '17 at 23:00

I would describe such a person as a bluffer.

This captures the intended meaning that the person is deliberately pretending to know more than they really do.

For example, they could bolster their act by consulting a "Bluffer's Guide" to the subject they are pretending to understand.

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    This is the only answer that correctly reflects the meaning of faking understanding merely to impress people, without any implication of fraudulent intent. +1 – Baldrick Jun 8 '17 at 7:09
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    I disagree, bluffing is about trying to hide you real intentions, not to show how much power / resources you really have etc. It overlaps with trying to hide incompetence but generally speaking bluffing is slightly different beast. – shabunc Jun 8 '17 at 9:27
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    Bluffer is probably the only word that has been suggested that you would hear in everyday speech. Not a perfect fit but certainly better than any of the others. – Vince O'Sullivan Jun 8 '17 at 20:43
  • DV - I think a bluffer has more of a connotation of being deceitful, rather than ignorant. – PV22 Jun 23 '17 at 17:56

There are some good answers here. Another possibility is wiseacre which The Chambers Dictionary defines as follows:

wiseacre noun: someone who unduly assumes an air of superior wisdom; a wise guy; a simpleton quite unconscious of being one.

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  • "simpleton quite unconscious of being one" seems to me an almost perfect fit for the OP's request. – LSerni Jun 8 '17 at 20:14
  • DV - In the way I have always heard this, it more refers to someone who is pompous or sarcastic, rather than ignorant. – PV22 Jun 23 '17 at 17:57

In ancient Greek theater, there were three stock characters in comedy: the Eirôn , the Alazôn, and the Bomolochus. Of those three characters, the alazôn is closest to the person whom you are describing in your question as pretentious, clueless, confused, and boastful (see here, here, and here).

The alazôn is the boastful imposter who, in essence, claims to know more than he does (which is very little). Along comes the eirôn who bursts the alazôn's bubble by pretending to know less than he does (which is a great deal), a process which could fairly be called a humorous Socratic dialog.

Traditionally, a Socratic dialog is a means of getting at the truth of a matter by question and answer, question and answer. In a Greek comedy, however, the humorous interaction between eirôn and alazôn proceeds step by step until the alazôn is exposed as a phony. In effect, the eirôn skillfully and humorously causes the alazôn to paint himself into a corner.

If you are thinking of a real-life character whom you know personally, you might try being an eirôn to his or her alazôn. Simply, but skillfully, ask the person a series of questions which is designed to make the person squirm, and possibly even confess to his ignorance. In other words, make him feel ashamed for being such a pretentious braggart!

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    In modern American theater (i.e. TV) there's Cliff Claven from Cheers. – Lee Daniel Crocker Jun 7 '17 at 17:35
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    That is not what the slang term salty means. – Cameron Jun 7 '17 at 18:41
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    So in short you don't think that there's any suitable English word and want to propose a loanword from ancient Greek which at least 99.9% of native English speakers will never have heard before in their lives? – Peter Taylor Jun 8 '17 at 12:00
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    @PeterTaylor: Nah. I'm just being pedantic. Forgive me. Thanks. Don – rhetorician Jun 8 '17 at 15:29
  • @Cameron: What does the word "salty" mean? I thought it meant to feel embarrassed, ashamed, chagrined. Don BTW, I just looked the word up on Urban Dictionary, and it says that salty means upset, pissed off. I guess I was a little off the mark. I'll change the word in my answer. – rhetorician Jun 8 '17 at 15:31

You could call him a mountebank. From Merriam-Webster online:

Mountebank derives from the Italian montimbanco, which was formed by combining the verb "montare" ("to mount"), the preposition "in" (converted to im, meaning "in" or "on"), and the noun "banco" ("bench"). Put these components together and you can deduce the literal origins of "mountebank" as someone mounted on a bench - the "bench" being the platform on which charlatans from the 16th and 17th centuries would stand to sell their phony medicines. Mountebanks often included various forms of light entertainment on stage in order to attract customers.

Later, extended uses of "mountebank" referred to someone who falsely claims to have knowledge about a particular subject or a person who simply pretends to be something he or she is not in order to gain attention.

As a side note, in Italian, montimbanco does no longer exist, and was replaced by saltimbanco (he who jumps on a bench), which primarily refers to the light entertainment on stage part.

Update: on second thoughts, you seem to focus on this person being confused - he's not intentionally trying to deceive but looks more like a victim of Dunning-Kruger effect . If it is so, then you're looking at a self-deceiver, or sometimes an impostor.

In slang, such a person is sometimes referred to as a head-nodder; I couldn't find a better reference than this.

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An intellectual impostor. It's a two word compound, but this has the advantage of narrowing down the type of imposture. This was used in this review:

Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter.

Richard Dawkins (1998/2007). Postmodernism disrobed. Nature 394:141–43

Intellectual faker is also sometimes employed, and may be nearer the associations you want.

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Sophomoric [sof-uh-mawr-ik, -mor-]/ adjective

  1. suggestive of or resembling the traditional sophomore; intellectually pretentious, overconfident, conceited, etc., but immature:
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Dunning-Kruger poster child. Or less cheekily, "victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect" which is a cognitive bias that prevents one from knowing just how incompetent and clueless one is, causing one to vastly overestimate one's knowledge and competence, pretty much the way you say.

I would point out one thing, though: You said "pretends to understand" but also "intellectually clueless" -- I think you meant "thinks they understand", because pretending implies they are aware of the situation (making their actions subterfuge), whereas true cluelessness, à la Dunning-Kruger or any number of great answers here, requires them to be unaware of it (making them guilty of, perhaps, lack of hubris and certainly of being annoying, but not of outright deception).

RationalWiki has some info on Dunning-Kruger, as do many other places on the Internet.

For a good time, listen to Act Two of this This American Life podcast, which features David Dunning himself.

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Bullshitter or Bullshit artist

More: More formal synonym of "bullshit artist"?

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Perhaps a dilettante could work for you. Your definition is a little different, but in context means essentially the same thing. Dilettantes pretend they know lots even if they have little understanding.

a person having a superficial interest in an art or a branch of knowledge

: Merriam-Webster

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    That's a negative view of dilettante. You could also call them an "enthusiast", i.e. someone with an interest, but not deep knowledge of a field. – Engineer Jun 7 '17 at 23:10

Hypocrite would be the word I would use.

The word hypocrite is rooted in the Greek word hypokrites, which means “stage actor, pretender, dissembler.” So think of a hypocrite as a person who pretends to be a certain way, but really acts ... the total opposite.


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    This is not specific to "understanding" which seems central to the question. – k1eran Jun 7 '17 at 17:04

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