Thursday 26 November 2009

A deceptively simple topic

Today I read a review describing a film as "deceptively lightweight". What, I wondered, did this mean? Did the reviewer think the film seems deep on the surface (surely an oxymoron), but was essentially frivolous? Or did he mean that it is in fact serious, only appearing lightweight?

This is the problem with the word "deceptively" - nobody can agree what it means when used to modify an adjective in this way. The OED definition of "in a deceptive manner, so as to deceive" is not very helpful, while the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (cited here at notes that "when deceptively is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is often unclear" - when its Usage Panel was asked to decide what a "deceptively shallow pool" meant, 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.

Deceptively simple

The potential for ambiguity does not seem to have stopped people using it, particularly in arts reviews, sports commentary and property advertising. With some common phrases, it is fairly easy to grasp the general meaning. When a book, film, piece of music or other work of art is described as "deceptively simple", this generally means that it appears simple in a way that deceives the reader/viewer/listener about its essential complexity or cleverness. When applied to a recipe, however, as in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's "deceptively simple" blue cheese gougères, "deceptively simple" seems to mean the opposite: something which looks impressive or complicated, but is really very easy to prepare. And The Independent's description of Muse's debut album as "deceptively sophisticated" - which one might imagine to mean the reverse of "deceptively simple" - in fact suggests very much the same thing: that the album's superficial simplicity disguises an underlying sophistication.

Other meanings are harder to pin down. The estate agent's favourite, "deceptively spacious" - does it mean a property which looks small from the street, or from photos, but is actually very large? Or does it - as Dogberry thinks - mean a property which is rather small, but gives the impression of being spacious through use of light and clever decorating? Either way, it means a property whose spaciousness is compromised in some way - not very desirable, but perhaps intriguing enough to persuade a buyer to set up a viewing.

Deceptively spacious

And some usages are simply baffling. What does The Times's description of a cricketer's bowling as "deceptively effective" mean? That it was more effective than it looked? Or that it was effective because of its deceptiveness? Similarly, I quite can't work out what the "deceptive" is referring to in The Independent's description of "deceptively well-crafted poems" or The Times's of "deceptively well-made" short films, although I suspect the meaning in both cases is something close to "deceptively simple". The most marvellously mysterious, though, was the reference in a Times music review to Deep Purple's "deceptively funky cymbals". It is clear from the context that this is a good thing, but beyond that the meaning is entirely lost on me.

It seems that the advantages of versatility and conciseness (it's quicker and neater to say "deceptively shallow" than "shallower than it appeared") overrule any concerns about confusing the reader. "Deceptively" also allows the writer to lay claim to a degree of perspicacity in discerning what is not immediately apparent; this may also be part of its appeal.

Deceptively funky



  1. Thank you for a great post!

    I think the key to its appeal is as you say the self-congratulatory frisson of realizing how much more perspicacious you are than the hordes of deceived.

    I'm massaging IQ-enhancing balm into my temples and loading up on Winstrol, the steroid that got sprinter Ben Johnson disqualified fromt he 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

  2. I never told anyone, but I actually owned the import/export rights for Winstrol in North America and Australia until Ben Johnson was revealed as a cheat. My intention was always honest, meaning that I only conducted trade operations on behalf of certified rehabilitation centers. I do not believe he received his stereoids by way of my associates.

    Mr. Johnson's misfortune entirely destroyed the market for these substances, in fact causing my Canadian operation to shut down. Four people lost their jobs! Still upsets me. I never bothered to reopen the office there (Vancouver), as I found Canadians in general to be suspicious and overly skeptic toward innovation.

    A few years ago I could have made significant profits off an opportunity within the Canadian cranberry oil (synthetic) market. I turned it down, partially because I disagree with the bilingual requirements in that country. In my mind, the molding of languages should not be restricted to two tongues privilègées.