Word of the Day: simple

Word of the Day: simple


Simple Simon met a pieman,
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
Let me taste your ware.
Says the pieman to Simple Simon,
Show me first your penny;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
Indeed I have not any.


Simon’s a simpleton: what does that mean? He can add and subtract, but can’t do long division? Off to the American college goes he!

Finding the word’s immediate origin is simple enough: French simple, from Latin simplex (Italian semplice). But the Latin word is fascinating. It’s a combination of two parts, the sim and the plex. The sim implies one, as in only one: cf. single. The plex is related to a group of words having to do with weaving or knotting or wrapping. Something that is complex is full of tangles: a knotty problem, we say. A person who is duplicitous has one face and shows another. He’s two-ply. For bathroom tissue, that’s good, but not so for people. If you are perplexed, you’ve really got a problem: you are thoroughly confused. So Una is dismayed to see the great perplexitee of Red Cross Knight in his first tussle in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. What’s the trouble? The monster Error has wreathed her endless and knotted tail around him and is squeezing him to death. “Add faith unto your force, and be not faint,” cries the wise damsel – “Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee!”


I think of that scene during the Christmas season, when I take out the strings of outdoor lights, and notice that the mischievous Christmas Light Elves have been at work again, hopelessly intertwining and knotting a hundred feet of them, so inextricably that even the great Moebius himself could not have described their involutions. The Moebius Strip, as you may recall, is not a seedy avenue for German politicians, but a ring with only one side, just as the Klein Bottle is a bottle with only one surface. I believe that the Christmas Light Perplex is just the Klein Bottle raised to the fifth dimension.
Are there any fine old English words in the fold? Yes, there are. We apply Grimm’s Law, which one of these days I will explain in full. Anyway, the words in Latin that begin with p correspond with Germanic words beginning with f: and the word we’re looking for here will also have an l in it: fold. Something made manifold has been multiplied; the words are mirrors of one another. Something twofold is duplex, or, through French, doubled.

So a simple person has only one side. What you see is what you get. Sometimes the word describes a virtue, sometimes a vice. Simplicity is close kin to beauty: The Lord is my shepherd, says the psalmist, there is nothing I shall want. In Hebrew it’s even simpler: Adonai ro’i: lo echsor. But it’s bad to be simplistic; the charge that sophisticated duplicity levels at forthright common sense.

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