Sun, Jan 02, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Personal or private? This may give you a complicated complex

By William Safire  /  NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In his year-end news conference, President Bush was asked if his relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has been undermining democracy, had chilled. Bush replied, "You know, it's complicated." Then he corrected himself: "It's complex rather than complicated." After that surprising display of hair-splitting synonymy, he went on to explain what he meant by complexity: working with the Russians in sharing intelligence on terrorism while implicitly criticizing Putin for his recent centralization of power.

Bush liked his choice of the word complex so much that he thrice returned to it moments later when asked about criticism of the Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld: "The secretary of defense is a complex job. It's complex in times of peace, and it's complex even more so in times of war."

Simply put, the president rejects complications and is hooked on complexity. Let's examine the difference between those words. Complicated is a participial adjective rooted in the Latin for "folded together." It has always had a slightly sinister connotation: "There they lie," wrote the philosopher Henry Power in 1664, "all dead, twisted and complicated all together, like a knot of Eels." Three years later, the poet John Milton, in Paradise Lost, wrote of a hellish scene, "Thick swarming now/With complicated monsters."

Over the centuries, the word's meaning was rehabilitated somewhat but still retains a primary sense of "hard to unravel or explain; so intimately intertwined as to be confusing." Often it is used as an excuse for an inability to clearly define: To say, "That's complicated," is to duck a question or to cover up ignorance of detail.

Although complex, rooted in the Latin for "encompass or embrace different elements," is also the opposite of "simple," it does not seem to brush aside the questioner as one too easily confused. Complex means "with interconnected parts; compounded of different elements; an intricate combination of ideas."

In grammar, a complex sentence contains one or more subordinate clauses, like the one beginning "Although," which puts the reader to sleep at the beginning of the paragraph that precedes this one. It is the opposite of the simple declarative sentence, like "Complex is usually a compliment." (In simplicity there is strength; in complexity there are nuances running the risk of voter distrust; in complication there is danger of a need for drastic surgery to disentangle those linguistic eels.)

PRIVATE VS. PERSONAL

In his defense of the secretary of defense, Bush said, "He has been around in Washington a long period of time." This is an example of lazy verbosity; Alistair Cooke used to deride Yanks who said, "Welcome to the New York area" or substituted on a daily basis for "every day" or Brits who said "in two weeks' time."

The president was sharp, however, when it came to getting personal: A reporter asked about his plan for "private accounts" among proposed changes to the Social Security system, and Bush began his response with "As to personal accounts ..."

This past summer, at the Republican convention in New York, the former House majority leader Richard Armey took me aside at a fat-cat function and whispered, "Personal is the word, not private." Sure enough, in all Republican presentations of elements of the future "ownership society," the warm, almost cuddly word personal -- as in "up close and personal," a phrase used in The New York Times in 1915 to describe the closeness of the Reverend Selden Delaney with his parishioners, later popularized as the title of a 1996 movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford -- is the term used to escape from private, a word that is the antithesis of public and is seen to offend most blue-state citizens. (That's a complicated sentence that wishes it were merely complex.)

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