deceptively simple

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Jan 27 02:53:40 UTC 2008

I'm not sure whether I'm recalling an earlier discussion of this on
ads-l or Language Log, or just this column by Biersma, forwarded by a
colleague.  I think the answer is that you're not the only one to be
unable to parse it.


You dasn't speak deceptively or be overanxious to please

By Nathan Bierma
Special to the Tribune
Published August 30, 2006

Q. We have had a long-standing disagreement about how to interpret
the phrase "deceptively simple." Once at a dinner party we surveyed
our very smart guests, and the group was evenly divided. What is your
opinion? Does "deceptively simple" mean that something is truly
simple but appears difficult, or does it mean that something is truly
difficult but looks as if it were simple?

-- Terry Sukenik, Chicago
-- Terry Imber, Los Angeles

A. This bet will be hard to settle. The answer is not simple, and I'm
not deceiving.

"When `deceptively' is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is
often unclear," says the "American Heritage Guide to Contemporary
Usage and Style." The American Heritage editors surveyed their Usage
Panel back in 1982, and got similar results to your dinner-party
poll. In the sentence -- "The pool is deceptively shallow" -- half of
the panel thought the pool is shallower than it appears; while 32
percent said it was deep; and 18 percent said it was impossible to
determine. I agree with the 50 percent. Because "deceptively"
modifies "shallow," I would think the pool is shallow but deceives
you into thinking that it isn't shallow. But there's so much
ambiguity in the phrase that American Heritage's "Guide" suggests
that you reword it, saying that the pool "is shallower than it looks"
or "is shallow, despite its appearance."


At 4:49 PM -0800 1/26/08, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>Editing a manuscript the other day, I was unable to parse the
>collocation "deceptively simple" because I couldn't figure out if it
>means "appears complex but is actually simple" or "appears simple
>but is actually simple". I knew this was bizarre given that I'm a
>native speaker of English, but it also piqued my interest as to why
>I was suddenly drawing a blank.
>After Googling around for a bit, I found that is means the latter,
>but I also came up with the following meanings:
>1. The basics are easy to learn, but their application/mastery
>requires a great deal of practice or thought. Applications of this
>includes games such as go and texas hold'em
>Go is the world's most ancient board game, with deceptively simple
>rules that lead to astonishingly deep strategy.
>Texas Hold'em is a deceptively simple game to learn but a harder
>game to master.
>( by
>Bill Burton)
>2. The surface is simple, but there is great deal of depth. (Nearly
>synonymous with 1)
>Deceptively Simple Melodies...A mesmerizing narcotically-addicting
>collage of deceptively simple solo keyboard and synthesizer melodies
>that worm into your mind. ( by
>Douglas King (?))
>Deceptively simple stories about earthy country girls
>by Jesse Berrett)
>3. Given the simplicity of the operation/interface, it is powerful.
>InqScribe sports a deceptively simple interface, pairing your
>digital video and audio with a transcript editor that lets you
>synchronize specific portions of your transcript with corresponding
>time segments within the media.
>"Deceptively simple revenge ideas from Martha Stewart Living", an
>article including simple ideas such as vandalising cars, sending
>hate bouquets, and destroying lawns.
>by Spirit Fingers)
>4. Although it is a straight-forward process, the science behind it
>is complex/it is difficult to describe it scientifically.
>Resistance Welding: A Fast, Inexpensive and Deceptively Simple
>Process... This makes the process extremely difficult to model
>mathematically...On first inspection, the resistance welding process
>is relatively simple. (
>by T. W. Eager)
>(On the design of the Google logo) It was playful and deceptively
>simple. The design subtle as to look almost non-designed, the
>reading effortless. The colors evoke memories of child play, but
>deftly stray from the color wheel strictures so as to hint to the
>inherent element of serendipity creeping into any search results
>page and the irreverance and boldness of the "I am feeling lucky"
>link. The texture and shading of each letter is done in an
>unobtrusive way resulting in lifting it from the page while giving
>it both weight and lightness. It is solid but there is also an
>ethereal quality to it.
>by Philipp Lenssen, citing Ruth Kedar)
>5. Appears to be simple, but turns out not to be so.
>The Deceptively Simple Senior Search...No way around it: I had one
>weekend to write an all-new, 45-minute dazzler. My simple senior
>search was turning out to be not so simple.
>( by
>Julie Striver)
>There is also the title "Is Generative Grammar deceptively simple or
>simply deceptive?"
>( by Stephen
>Crain and Paul Pietroski)
>Admittedly, these can all be classified as having a simple element
>that turns out to have complexity. Nevertheless, meanings 1 and 5
>are essentially antonymous, and the application of definition 4 is
>quite different from the others. I think this makes this an
>interesting collocation and perhaps indicates that this could be
>considered a single word unit.
>What would be interesting is if a citation can be found where
>"deceptively simple" is used to refer to a process that appears to
>be complex but is actually simple.
>Benjamin Barrett
>a cyberbreath for language life
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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