Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Simplexity

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It’s very hard to explain complex ideas clearly. When someone does so, you can say something really dull and boring like, ‘you explained that complex idea clearlyzzzzzzzzzzzz’.

Or — you can, for a small charge, borrow my shiny new phrase, shamelessly stolen from a comments thread on a big famous blog that I’m not going to name because it never publishes my comments. Anyway, my purloined phrase is:

A fine example of brilliant simplexity.

A combination, of course, of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’: a simple explanation of a complex idea.

Reserve your copy now.

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26 Responses

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  1. Hi Deborah,

    Please reinforce my prejudices and tell me that was a US blog you nicked it from.

    Ron.

    Ron

    06/05/2010 at 9:40 am

    • Duly reinforced. Although I nicked the phrase from a comment someone made — I’m not sure what nationality they were. I’m kind of guessing you don’t like ‘simplexity’? I think it may be a word that people really like or really hate.

      Deborah

      06/05/2010 at 9:43 am

      • Hate’s a bit strong. How about loathe?

        I’m rarely thrilled by portmanteau words that, when peered at closely, don’t actually mean anything, of which this, for me, is a prime example.

        Ron.

        Ron

        06/05/2010 at 10:05 am

        • Ron — get off the fence there. What do you really think?

          Seriously — I know what you mean. This one just appealed to me — I’m not sure why…

          Deborah

          06/05/2010 at 10:11 am

          • Just a bit peeved about language at the moment. I’m writing a blog post and Word’s spell-checker wants to spell “vulcanology” as “volcanology”, a form that’s all over the web and even in the Guardian.

            For me, though, that’s just a further dumbing-down of the language for the benefit of the hard of thinking.

            Can’t spell? Hang on a while, someone will come up with an incorrect spelling you can cope with. And if enough numpties use it, it’ll get into dictionaries and spell-checkers – still won’t make it correct, though.

            Accepting an incorrect spelling (or just using something wrongly, as with “begging the question” which now has the exact opposite of its real meaning), just because a lot of people use it isn’t linguistic evolution. It’s just wrong.

            Ron.
            (Pedantic? Me?)

            Ron

            06/05/2010 at 10:29 am

            • Hi — it’s interesting that you should mention ‘begging the question’ as I did a post on that very conundrum a while back.

              I fully expect you to hit me over the head with a rolled up copy of the Grauniad for this, and I could be wrong, but I think that ‘vulcanology’ and ‘volcanology’ are both considered correct as alternative spellings? Just before ducking for cover, I know you will be shocked to learn that our proxy vote did not materialise. Rubbish bureaucracy trumps democracy.

              Deborah

              06/05/2010 at 11:38 am

              • Nope – that was actually my point. They ARE considered correct but I believe they shouldn’t be.

                Common usage doesn’t equal correctness, and a dictionary should be about what the language actually is, not what people would like it to be. People being too dumb to spell correctly should never mean that the language changes officially, even if it does at street level.

                And despite an increasing belief in schools, spelling does matter.

                Ron

                06/05/2010 at 11:44 am

                • I agree. Ron — do you remember some years back when a local newspaper (I can’t remember what part of the country it was published in) made the decision to drop most punctuation and capital letters etc because the editor believed that this would appeal more to the readership? I don’t think I was kidnapped by aliens who implanted the story into my brain, but I’ve tried googling the subject and have never been able to find anything on it.

                  Deborah

                  06/05/2010 at 11:55 am

                  • Ha! That was the Grauniad…

                    Ron

                    06/05/2010 at 12:07 pm

                    • Seriously???

                      Deborah

                      06/05/2010 at 12:08 pm

                    • Odd – no reply button – but yes, it was the Guardian, back when Ian Mayes was readers’ editor (sic).

                      The reason, as I understand it, was that Guardian hacks got it wrong so often, it was easier just to abandon capitalisation and minimise punctuation. Except in CiF, of course, where the number of dots in an ellipsis is apparently infinite!

                      Ron

                      06/05/2010 at 12:29 pm

                    • How depressing. Being kidnapped by aliens would have been preferable.

                      Deborah

                      06/05/2010 at 12:33 pm

            • While we’re on the subject of words, can I put in a plea for the reintroduction of “gotten” to British English? It’s far too useful to be left to the colonies.

              Ron

              06/05/2010 at 11:39 am

              • Now that’s an intriguing one. I just looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary of English. It dates back to Middle English. The ODE says that ‘gotten’ is not used in Blighty but is very common in North America; it also says that in America it is ‘often regarded as non-standard’. I wonder if that’s true? Also interesting is the fact that in the UK we commonly use ‘ill-gotten’ as in ‘ill-gotten gains’. Thanks, Ron.

                Deborah

                06/05/2010 at 11:49 am

                • Can’t find my Concise OED – it’s put away (thousands of books, so little room), but Collins, which is usually reliable, simply lists is as “past participle of get”.

                  Logically, though, if we still have ill-gotten, gotten must have been in use at some point.

                  The thing about much American English is that it’s a purer form than modern British English – it missed out on the French influence that inserted “u” into words like labour and colour, and the southern-English affectation of elongated vowels that, despite the fact that it’s alien to most of the country, became accepted as standard English pronunciation.

                  Even their, to our ears bizarre, pronunciation of ration as raytion is actually correct (though they lose the plot with “missle” for missile; and don’t get me started on “nucular”!).

                  But back to gotten, in Bill Bryson’s “Mother Tongue” I’m pretty sure there’s a citation for gotten in British English. It’ll have to wait until I’m functioning a bit better – I’ll need to read the whole thing. Best I can manage right now is Terry Pratchett (reading the old stuff, because there may not be any new stuff).

                  Ron

                  06/05/2010 at 12:24 pm

                  • Yes, it’s interesting how people rage against ‘Americanisms’ when they are not Americanisms at all. The ‘ize’ ending instead of ‘ise’ is another example. ‘Ize’ dates back to the sixteenth century; ‘ise’ is French-influenced.

                    Hope you’re feeling better soon. The Terry Pratchett thing is very sad — he is very courageous to talk about his experiences so openly and honestly.

                    Deborah

                    06/05/2010 at 12:45 pm

                    • Self-inflicted, I’m afraid (but it’s small consolation). I overdosed on my meds while sleepwalking (luckily missing the potentially lethal ones). Still trying to work out how to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Caltraps on the bedroom floor maybe…

                      Ron

                      06/05/2010 at 1:04 pm

                    • That sounds like a bit of a close call. Caltraps could just work…

                      Being an anorak, I just had to look up that word ‘caltrap’ also spelt ‘caltrop’. It’s from Old English ‘calcatrippe’ meaning any plant which tends to catch the feet. It’s taken from Medieval Latin ‘calcatrippa’, from ‘calx’ meaning ‘heal’ or ‘calcare’ meaning ‘to tread’.

                      I’ll shut up and go away now.

                      Deborah

                      06/05/2010 at 1:17 pm

                    • Um… It’s four spikes, welded together in such a way that when thrown on the ground, one is always pointing up. The weapon of choice against the horses of medieval knights – the precursor of mines and IEDs.

                      Ron

                      06/05/2010 at 1:26 pm

                    • Yes, sorry to confuse you — I knew that. I was just looking up the origin of the word because it’s unusual. I’ve also just noticed that it still has the second meaning of a creeping plant that ‘resembles military caltraps’.

                      Deborah

                      06/05/2010 at 1:32 pm

  2. Then is “complicity” when you over-elaborate?

    We use “gotten” all the time and — believe it or not — most folks are able to distinguish the subtle difference between the two past participles.

    I liked Ron’s points about the fact that AmE is sort of frozen in time — that time being the immediate post-Revolutionary War period, when we parted ways linguistically and otherwise. I find it fascinating that Washington and Cornwallis would have shared the same accent; then Cornwallis went home and developed (re-developed, in fact, since it existed in past eras) a “British” accent.

    Michael Farrell

    06/05/2010 at 2:22 pm

    • Michael — is ‘gotten’ often regarded as non-standard as claimed in my ODE?

      Deborah

      06/05/2010 at 2:31 pm

      • No — not by people who know anything about AmE. 🙂 OED/ODE is stronger on BrE (and I’m sure the reverse is true about US dictionaries). Fowler’s is sometimes wildly inaccurate about AmE.

        Michael Farrell

        06/05/2010 at 2:39 pm

        • Thank you — I was suspicious when I read it in the ODE.

          Deborah

          06/05/2010 at 2:40 pm

    • Not only that, Michael, but from what I’ve read the American English of the Revolutionary period was remarkably similar to the English I spoke as a child in post-war Manchester. At least when written – it may have sounded substantially different.

      Ron

      06/05/2010 at 2:43 pm

      • Ha! Very inneresting.

        Michael Farrell

        06/05/2010 at 3:41 pm


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