Monday, December 10, 2007

Word games

A question for you.

Someone I work with, who is perhaps an even bigger language geek than I am, suggests that ‘deceptively’ is a confusing word to use because it can easily be construed as having either of two contradictory meanings. For instance:

The pool was deceptively deep

Could be taken to mean either of the following:

(1) The pool was deeper than it looked – i.e., its real depth deceived onlookers
(2) The pool looked deeper than it was – i.e., its ‘depth’ was just a deception

Now, I’m immediately sure which of these two is right, and I don’t think it’s that ambiguous. But if there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that I have no idea how other people think.

Which – don’t look anything up – of (1) and (2) would you understand it to mean? How confident are you?


Anonymous said...

It's definitely (1). Partly by analogy with 'deceptively spacious' in estate agents' descriptions, and partly because I have a feeling that 'deceptively' has an ominous tinge to it in this context.

Tom said...

Yes, definitely (1).

(I was going to launch into a long anecdote about a school trip to some caves in which the guide kept describing pools as "deceptively deep", and then my friend described the pitch darkness as "deceptively light", but I think you had to be there.)

Tom Freeman said...

That’s exactly what I think. Thank you!

It’s all in the role of the adverb: ‘the pool was dangerously deep’ means that the pool was deep in such a way as to be dangerous. Apply the same logic to ‘deceptively’ and you get (1). Obvious.

(Although it doesn't work with 'apparently'.)

And please don’t talk to me about estate agents… the one I've been using has been deceptively deceptive.

Andrew R said...

Although my first thought was (1), on reflection I'm going with (2). If we describe a wronged wife's demeanour as "deceptively calm" it doesn't mean that though she appears extremely upset really she's copacetic. "The puzzle is deceptively simple" means that we start with "How hard can that be?" and finish by throwing it across the room. So, like the calm of the wife and the simplicity of the puzzle, the apparent depth of the pool is illusory.

Tom Freeman said...

That's interesting. I think each of those examples introduces a new kind of ambiguity.

'Deceptively calm' would, I agree, be perverse to use in the way you reject. But the thing about 'calm' is that the appearance and the reality aren't distinct: calmness is both behavioural and emotional. I note that you specifically said that the wife's demeanour would be described as deceptively calm.

Indeed, if she's sitting back in a comfy chair but her mind is desperately racing, then in a behavioural sense she's deceptively calm. Emotionally, she's nto deceptively anything as her emotions are imperceptible.

'The puzzle is deceptively simple' I might take in a different way from you. I'd take it to mean that it had a trick question sort of quality whereby you engage in complex calculations to little avail, whereas the answer is in fact laughably easy if you come at it from the right perspective.

In the case where you start thinking it's easy and end up in despair, I'd call that deceptively hard.

There may be a dichotomy (if I can lurch into full-blown pseud mode) between the solution to the puzzle per se and the process of finding that solution. One might be easy and the other not. Unfortunately, I'm too tired to follow this through to how it relates to our different construals. Oh well.