Angela’s ABCs: meretricious and meritorious by Angela Caldin

There are various words in the English language whose meanings I only half understand, like paradigm or leverage or egregious.

Boris Johnson, apparently attractive, but having no real value: meretricious.

There’s also a word whose meaning I thought I understood, but having looked it up, I discover I had misunderstood it completely. That word is meretricious. I had vaguely thought it had something to do with merit and that it described something good, but in fact if you describe something as meretricious, you disapprove of it because although it appears attractive it actually has little value or integrity.  It’s used to suggest pretence, insincerity, and cheap or tawdry ornamentation:

  • Critics claim that a lot of television programmes these days are meretricious and superficial.
  • With her short skirts, flashy earrings and meretricious style of dressing, she has sometimes been mistaken for a prostitute as she walks home late at night.
  • The prime minister’s speech was entertaining and full of classical allusions, but was meretricious and without substance.

Sir Keir Starmer, worthy of respect and praise: meritorious.

If we want to describe something good or worthwhile, the word to use would be meritorious which means worthy of honour, esteem or reward:

  • She was honoured for her meritorious service to the company.
  • The large tome was a well-researched and meritorious compilation of information, but not very readable.
  • A valid legal claim for which the complainant should receive compensation is an example of a meritorious lawsuit.

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