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Is there a single word in English (or borrowed) that describes someone or some action as being clever or smart on the surface, but is actually quite foolish or unproductive?

I used to think "disingenuous" meant this (which of course it doesn't). The closest word I'd use would be something like "dis-ingenious".

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    Well you're nothing if not persistent! Why on earth would you think adding a hyphen would convert disingenuous into your target word? – FumbleFingers Jan 6 '12 at 23:05
  • ...actually, I don't think I've ever hear supercilious used in a context where the speaker thinks the person they're talking about really is superior/smarter, so in principle that would do. So would smart-ass, clever-clogs, and dozens more expressions. – FumbleFingers Jan 6 '12 at 23:09
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    @FumbleFingers Actually, the OP has not only added a hyphen; the base word is different: one ending in -uous; the other with -ious. I think that may have been deliberate. – TheGeeko61 Jan 7 '12 at 0:47
  • @TheGeeko61: Okay, okay! (know-it-all! :) – FumbleFingers Jan 7 '12 at 1:48
  • @FumbleFingers it was to differentiate disengenious from disengenuous and to make it clear I was forming an approximate word as a kind of antonym. – Justicle Jan 8 '12 at 7:05

11 Answers 11

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If somebody says things that seem sensible, but are actually foolish or wrong, you can call their words specious.

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    Excellent. Most of the answers are pretty good, but this is the closest to what I was after. – Justicle Jan 8 '12 at 7:09
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    Hmmm... I wonder... Specious does mean apparently correct but actually false. Yet is there not a connotation of deliberate deceptiveness about it? For instance, I wouldn't feel comfortable calling a faulty argument specious if it were merely inadvertently fallacious. – Rick Mar 22 '12 at 2:31
  • @Rick That's a good point, there are those connotations. I'm OK with them. – Justicle Apr 5 '12 at 17:38
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I realise this is too late to help the original poster, but there is another great word with a similar meaning: Meretricious: seeming good but no so, or 'apparently attractive but having no real value'. This word is often used in the phrase 'a meretricious argument'. It is used a lot by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his book The Affluent Society to mean exactly what the OP suggested. Etymologically it is interesting coming apparently from the Latin word for prostitute.

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    Meretricious has the stench of its etymology: prostitution. That is still its meaning in the law. That word is not for casual use. – Theresa May 4 '17 at 8:13
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Among single words for "someone... clever or smart on the surface, but... actually quite foolish or unproductive" is wiseacre, "One who feigns knowledge or cleverness; an insolent upstart." Some related terms: smart aleck and cleverclogs, the latter meaning "An intellectual who is ostentatiously and irritatingly knowledgeable". [edit: I now see clever-clogs got mentioned in an earlier comment.]

Another term to consider is Trojan horse, of which Wikipedia notes:

Metaphorically a "Trojan Horse" has come to mean any trick or stratagem that causes a target to invite a foe into a securely protected bastion or space.

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Good question. Another approximation might be sciolism, which is defined as superficial or pretentious knowledgeability.

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See also: Sophistry

  1. a. a method of argument that is seemingly plausible though actually invalid and misleading b. the art of using such arguments
  2. subtle but unsound or fallacious reasoning
  3. an instance of this; sophism
  • The adjective is sophistic. – dangph May 2 '17 at 2:56
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I am not sure of a single word, but would a two-word phrase be OK, such as ostensibly clever, or seemingly clever?

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Glib or superficial could be used to describe "smart on the surface" but lacking depth.

  • Not exactly the same thing, glib and superficial are more like facade than foolish - although the apparent cleverness is not real, it's more fake or shallow than foolish. But, someone might be fooled by it. – Ben Aveling May 21 '19 at 17:47
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Not a single word, but consider: 'too clever by half':

(idiomatic, of a person, plan, theory, etc.) Shrewd but flawed by overthinking or excessive complexity, with a resulting tendency to be unreliable or unsuccessful.

Source: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/too_clever_by_half

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Century Dictionary and Cylopedia has this note under synonyms for adroit:

Clever implies notable quickness, readiness, resource in practical affairs, and sometimes the lack of the larger powers of mind: ...A clever statesman may or may not be an able one; a man may be clever in evil.

So clever itself, in the right context, may contain the meaning you seek.

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One term sometimes used for this is "mental giant."

It's common to use a word meaning clever smart satirically, such as, "The brilliant mechanic ruined three nuts and a bolt before he realized the threads were incompatible."

  • As you say, ironic usages abound. Einstein and genius, for example, are commonly used ironcally. But I think this is really a comment, not an answer. – FumbleFingers Jan 8 '12 at 20:52
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Pseudo-intellectual is used for someone who uses big words to look intelligent when they are actually not.

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