Complex and Complicated

By Maeve Maddox

Listening to BBC 4, one of our UK readers heard a senior police officer refer to a recent case as “a complex and complicated investigation.” Al asks:

Was he repeating himself or were there subtle nuances of communication here?

Alas, Al. Looks as if the American suspicion that one word is never enough may have found its way across the Atlantic.

Both complex and complicated mean “folded together, intertwined, difficult to separate.”

Complex as an adjective meaning “not easily analyzed” dates from about 1715. Complicated with the meaning “difficult to unravel” dates from 1656.

As its third definition of complicated, the OED gives “to combine or mix up with in a complex, intricate, or involved way.”

My first post for DWT, Let the Word Do the Work, addresses this tendency. Here are some recent additions to my collection:

  • inundated by water
  • nostalgia for the past
  • adequate enough
  • pairing together
  • world-wide pandemic
  • preordained from before
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13 Responses to “Complex and Complicated”

  • Daniel Scocco

    We should compile a complete list of English redundancies one of these days 🙂 .

  • Ray Ward

    Sometimes redundancy like this is a rhetorical device called “pleonasm,” described by Bryan Garner as “purposeful amplification that clarifies or elaborates the thought.” He gives this example by Karl Llewellyn: “Seen thus, perhaps, law appears to be a tiny thing, an infinitesimal part of civilization.”

  • Maeve

    Ray,
    Yes, such a device done intentionally can contribute meaning or emotion, as in the fantastic line in Macbeth:

    Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
    The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
    Making the green one red.

    Simply using two words to say the same thing is careless writing.

  • Maeve

    Postscript to the article:

    I think in my own work I might choose to use complicated to describe something tangible, like the complicated innards of a clock. I’d use complex to describe something abstract, like a problem or a person’s character.

  • joe c

    My own take has always been: “complex” is deep; “complicated” is messy

  • Ove Pettersen

    A distinction between these two terms has been suggested:

    “The differences […] may be illustrated by means of the Norwegian ecophilosopher Sigmund Kvaløy Sætereng’s distinction between complexity and complication, between that which is complex and that which is complicated (Kvaløy 1993: 122–124). That which is complex is typically the organic, dynamic, irreversible, self-governing, diversified and multi-directional. An example is any particular organism, which as a whole is an intricate relationship of interdependent parts, and whose identity transcends the collection of its parts. That which is complicated is mechanical, static, reversible, externally controlled and unidirectional. That which is typically complicated is a machine, which is analysable in terms of the actions and reactions of its parts.”

    Read more at:
    http://www.eki.ee/km/place/pl03/Place3_Arntzen.pdf

    I found this distinction quite useful in my native Norwegian, and hope it will eventually creep into English …

  • GUY FEIGHNER

    what is meant by “mental genius”??

  • G

    By the same token, since some people claim that all babies are beautiful, they should not be saying “beautiful baby.”

  • James Lin

    Hope I can learn more about writing tips.

  • GUY FEIGHNER

    03/feb/2009

    MY NAME, GUY FEIGHNER, FOUND SEVERAL MANY (ANOTHER TWIST?) RESPONSES TO MY QUESTION: WHAT IS A MENTAL
    GENIUS? REGARDING: COMPLEX AND COMPLICATED, 17.FEB.2008.
    DIFFERENT VIEWPOINTS CONCERNING MY INQUIRY. PLEASE CONFIRM ANY FURTHER SUGGUESTIONS. THANK-YOU!!
    ANYTHING ELSE?

    THANKS, GUY D. FEIGHNER (PHONE: 260.416.0022), USA

  • GUY FEIGHNER

    03/feb/2009 I FOUND INFORMATION TO MY QUESTION, 2/FEB/09

    MY NAME, GUY FEIGHNER, FOUND SEVERAL MANY (ANOTHER TWIST?) RESPONSES TO MY QUESTION: WHAT IS A MENTAL
    GENIUS? REGARDING: COMPLEX AND COMPLICATED, 17.FEB.2008,
    INTERNET FINDINGS. THESE ARTICLES “INTERESTING”…..
    DIFFERENT VIEWPOINTS CONCERNING MY INQUIRY. PLEASE CONFIRM ANY FURTHER SUGGESTIONS. THANK-YOU!!
    ANYTHING ELSE? (SPACE TO ADD COMMENTS: LIMITED!!?

    THANKS, GUY D. FEIGHNER (PHONE: 260.416.0022), USA

  • Maeve

    Guy,
    I would consider “mental genius” to be redundant. To say “Einstein was a genius” is to say he was mentally brilliant.

  • Nsaw

    I believe it’s actually the British with the love for a range of words that mean ‘almost’ the same thing, plus a plethora of meanings to single words, if anything Americans condense/throw away a lot of seemingly useless words so it’s surprising that this this would REALLY come from America. More like the other way round.

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