Deceptively Simple?

Ever given much thought to the word “deceptively”? I hadn’t, until I came across the following in Word Court, Barbara Wallraff’s compilation of columns from her former Atlantic Monthly column.

Here’s what a reader asked her: “A friend and I cannot agree on the meaning of phrases combining ‘depectively’ and a modifier – for example, ‘deceptively easy.’ I contest that something that is deceptively easy is, in fact, easy and is deceptive because it appears difficult. My friend argues that a deceptively easy task is one that appears easy but is difficult. Please help.”

Good one, huh? I always sort of took the former view: that "deceptively" before an adjective means that it has the qualities of that adjective, just it’s hard to see it at first. So someone who talks in a lot of big words but express a simple message is expressing a deceptively simple idea.

Unfortunately, Wallraff reported, it’s not that simple.

“The sad truth is that at this moment in history ‘deceptively easy’ means nothing in particular,” she wrote, citing the American Heritage Dictionary.

Here’s what that dictionary has to say.

“When deceptively is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is often unclear. Does the sentence ‘The pool is deceptively shallow’ mean that the pool is shallower or deeper than it appears?”

Unlike many other dictionaries, American Heritage likes to cite a Usage Panel -- a group of esteemed wordy types from all across the word-pushing world -- for matters like these. Here’s what American Heritage reported: “When the Usage Panel was asked to decide, 50 percent thought the pool shallower than it appears, 32 percent thought it deeper than it appears, and 18 percent said it was impossible to judge. “

As a result, American Heritage gives this advice, which is basically the same as Wallraff’s: When the context does not make the meaning of ‘deceptively clear, the sentence should be rewritten, as in; The pool is shallower than it looks’ or ‘The pool is shallow, despite its appearance.’”

One Response to “Deceptively Simple?”

  1. Hmm, I would have assumed the former too (the 50% answer). My husband and I were just discussing another expression that seems to mean different things to different people -- turn down the AC -- make it warmer (turn down how much air is blowing) or make it colder (turn down the temperature)?