Prophetic, Predictive, Presageful, and Portentous

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A reader has asked me to explain the differences between prophetic, predictive, presageful, and portentous.

In a very general sense, the words are synonymous. All four are adjectives indicative of the future. Their connotations, however, differ.

The adjective prophetic has two meanings:

1. prophetic: “characteristic of prophecy or a prophet.” For example, King Saul was known to fall into a “prophetic frenzy,” a mental state usually associated with a prophet.

2. prophetic: “foretelling events.” For example, Jules Verne (1828-1905) created fictional scenarios that have proved to be prophetic of events and discoveries in our own times.

Prophetic often conveys supernatural connotations.

The adjective predictive is a simple way to say that something can be predicted or foretold. For example, anyone who has ever browsed an investment flyer has come across this expression: “Past performance is not predictive of future success.”

The adjective presageful derives from the noun presage: “something that portends, foreshows, or gives warning of that which is about to happen.” Presageful means, “full of presage.” The verb presage means, “to predict.” I found this example on a site dedicated to prison reform: “Two decades after [a former warden’s] presageful caveat, the Louisiana penal system is imploding under the weight of a burgeoning inmate population and a societal mindset that is more retributive than rehabilitational.”

Presageful is so uncommon that Word’s spellchecker flags it as a misspelling. Merriam-Webster’s single citation—“presageful gloom”— is from a convoluted sentence of 101 words spoken by Merlin’s sweetheart Vivien in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Trust me, this is a word you can do without.

The adjective portentous is used with three meanings:

1. portentous: “relating to a portent.” A portent is a sign thought to predict the future. Etruscans studied the flight of birds to foretell the future. Even the number of birds was regarded as portentous.

2. portentous: “eliciting amazement.” A travel article contains this example: “In the Grand Forks Valley at the foot of the mountain the portentous wall cuts off entirely the view of the summit.”

3. portentous: “exhibiting gravity or ponderousness.” A New York Times reviewer uses the word in the sense of inflated or pompous writing: “To be sure, there were plenty of passages like this in Cold Mountain —prose that somehow managed to be simultaneously portentous, folksy and cloying, like banjo music on the soundtrack of a Ken Burns documentary.” 

Used with the first meaning given above, portentous often suggests that whatever is being foretold is ominous and to be feared.

A Google search of the four words gives the following results:
predictive: 44,700,000
prophetic: 17,800,000
portentous: 464,000
presageful: 15,300

The Ngram Viewer shows that predictive and prophetic are far more common than portentous or presageful in printed books.

English has so many words that refer to foretelling the future or knowing something without being told that no writer need be at a loss to choose exactly the right one. For example:


Here are a few synonyms for portentous:
ill omened

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