August 28, 2005

'Tis the gift to be simplistic

"Refreshingly simplistic," was how a VH1 reviewer described a new CD by some artist whose name I didn't recognize. I couldn't jot it down, since I was wheezing on a treadmill at the time, but a Google search turns up 425 instances of the phrase, with results that are variously comical and bizarre. A Web design company boasts that its work is "stylish and refreshingly simplistic." SunMex Vacations tells vacationers that "most of Mazatlan remains refreshingly simplistic." And an customer review of Nelson Goodman's classic Fact, Fiction, and Forecast says, "The way that Goodman perceives our inductive system is unique and refreshingly simplistic." The press isn't immune, either -- the phrase is rare there, but it turns up in a 1996 article in Billboard and a 1998 article in The Independent.

A familiar sort of malaprop, but there's a bit more going on here.

That analysis of simplistic as merely a fancy synonym for simple seems to be implicit in the word oversimplistic. If you accept Merriam-Webster's definition of simplistic as "oversimple," then oversimplistic would be a pleonasm. Yet the word gets more than 14,000 Google hits and appears in 178 stories in Nexis major newspapers (the earliest cite I've found is from a 1970 story in The New York Times, but this would probably be easy to antedate). In fact Merriam-Webster's gives oversimplistic as a run-in in the entry for the prefix over-, and while the OED doesn't list oversimplistic as a word, the editors actually use it in their definition for nothing-but-ism: "An oversimplistic approach to the explanation of a phenomenon, which excludes complicating factors; reductionism."

You could argue, of course, that the over- of oversimplistic is chiefly an intensifier, the way it is in items like overbrutal, overfacile, overfussy, and overhasty, in all of which the root itself carries an implication of excess. But the existence of phrases like "refreshingly simplistic" shows that for some people, at least, simplistic itself has acquired a purely positive meaning. My guess is that this development is helped along by an analogy with simplicity. Someone looking for an adjectival version of "refreshing simplicity" (6290 Google hits) might be drawn to "refreshingly simplistic," particularly given the effective absence of the intermediate forms simplism and simplist that words ending in -istic tend to imply. (The words actually exist, but are rare and recondite.)

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at August 28, 2005 02:35 PM