What is the difference between masquerade and pretend?

Collins dictionary has the following example: He masqueraded as a doctor and fooled everyone

Why can't we use pretend in this sentence.


  • The AHD/Collins senses 'to dissemble / to take part in an involved scheme' at least inform how one interprets 'to masquerade'; 'pretend' is far less marked. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 10:26

3 Answers 3


The very simplest answer is that we can use either word for the same basic idea: it would be phrased "He pretended to be a doctor . . ." or even "He pretended he had a medical degree, and fooled everyone."

But here's my two-cent semantic digging a little deeper: It seems to me that 'masquerade' is fundamentally about masking - that is, hiding one's 'true identity' - but no elaboration as far as the mask itself, i.e. there is no implied substitute for what is hidden. It could be argued that the stereotypical 'masquerade ball' is about an elaborate substitute for the face, and that the interactions focus on a range of dynamic options: what people can get away with saying when nobody can see them, how certain conventions are either relaxed or reinforced by curiosity and/or obfuscation, etc. But sometimes it's more about who's been holding the most ostentatious or profoundly inspiring object in front of their face.

Whereas 'pretend' relates to pretense, pretension, pretentious, in that there is typically an intent to persuade/show observers something (e.g., "everything is fine, move along" or "I know what I'm doing") or a mutual intent to act out, roleplay etc. ("let's play pretend"). (or a combination of the two!)

Masquerade doesn't necessitate such an idea - it can simply be "you don't know who I am" and can even be a cheeky "I am not who I appear to be". But in the bare context of the question, it is just another way of communicating a pretense.

The overlap is that both concepts can have an element of pretense, but the more masquerade is used as a verb synonymous with "pretend", the more the two ideas become muddled.

https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=masquerade :

1590s, "assembly of people wearing masks and disguises," from French mascarade or Spanish mascarada "masked party or dance," from Italian mascarata "a ball at which masks are worn," variant of mascherata "masquerade," from maschera (see mask (n.)). Figurative sense of "false outward show" is from 1670s.

https://www.etymonline.com/word/pretend :

pretend (v.) late 14c., "to profess, assert, maintain" (a claim, etc.), "to direct (one's) efforts," from Old French pretendre "to lay claim," from Latin praetendere "stretch in front, put forward, allege," from prae "before" (see pre-) + tendere "to stretch," from PIE root *ten- "to stretch."

Main modern sense of "feign, put forward a false claim" is recorded from c. 1400; the older sense of simply "to claim" is behind the string of royal pretenders (1690s) in English history. Meaning "to play, make believe" is recorded from 1865. In 17c. pretend also could mean "make a suit of marriage for," from a sense in French. Related: Pretended; pretending.

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    +1. I think worth putting in a couple of quotes into this answer from etymonline as it would complement your observations. I 100% agree for comparing these words like these the etymology of the words gives very interesting insights.
    – k1eran
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 15:32
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    I added a 2nd quote, N. Presley, any concerns feel free to revert my edit!
    – k1eran
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 15:38
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    Not at all, I appreciate the follow-through. I was so caught up with unpacking masquerade, I kinda forgot I was comparing it to anything else!
    – N. Presley
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 15:40

Firstly, pretend can be used as an adjective to denote something that is imaginary

The children poured out pretend tea for the dolls.

whereas masquerade cannot be.

Coming onto their usage as verbs: In some cases, the two can be used interchangeably like,

  • At the party, he was pretending to be Voldemort.
  • At the party, he was masquerading as Voldemort.

However, the latter is considered more apt.

The two words as verbs essentially mean the same thing, i.e., pulling a disguise, but are used in different contexts.

In the example you provide, we can use pretend although generally, masquerade is more suitable when the subject carries an illicit pursuit as in the case here. However, I do admit I may be going out on a limb here.

Also, we cannot use masquerade in such a sentence:

He pretended to be asleep.

  • Excellent point - actively 'masquerading' is about being an impostor - someone you are not - rather than a feigned state.
    – N. Presley
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 6:32
  • Precisely! Yes, I think that sums it up perfectly. Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 3:30

You can. The Cambridge dictionary defines the verb masquerade as "to pretend or appear to be." So the following two sentences mean the same thing.

He masqueraded as a doctor and fooled everyone.

He pretended to be a doctor and fooled everyone.

However it doesn't work for this pair.

He pretended to be angry.

He masqueraded to be angry.

  • But you could say "He masqueraded anger".
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 7:28
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    I'd only normally use 'He pretended to be a doctor and fooled everyone.' if the situation was comic rather than serious. Register is important. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 10:22
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    @EdwinAshworth Yes, I think the courts would probably describe it as "medical impersonation". This report in The Guardian talks about "medical imposters". But you might say something like "He made himself out to be a doctor..." or "He affected to be a doctor..." Only if describing it to a child would you use "pretend".
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 16:29

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