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Pool: The varieties of simplistic experience

I want to get back to language this week to write about words whose meanings change from something good to something bad with the addition of a mere syllable at words’ end.

First we will have a quick overview. An inflectional suffix may mark a shift from past to present. Thus we see “walk” turning into “walked.” The basic meaning of the word is unchanged. It remains the same part of speech. The previous example starts a verb and remains one.

The second kind of suffix is called a derivational suffix. The meaning and part of speech change. “Deprive” is a verb. “Deprivation” is a noun.

The suffix that interests me is “-ic.” It turns a noun like “acid” into an adjective like “acidic.” So we start talking about a property instead of a thing.

An interesting phenomenon occurs with a tiny subset of “-ic” words. There is a change in connotation from something positive to something negative.

We should start with a simple example. “Simple” by itself is a perfectly good word that is often positive or at worst neutral. Alexander the Great’s cutting the Gordian knot was a simple solution to an overly complex and intractable problem.

He did not let himself be slowed down by solving this knot in order fulfill a prophecy. He cut it with his sword. His simple and decisive act drew admiration for its boldness.

“Simplistic” implies over-simplification to the point of idiocy. Complexities are denied in an effort to do something simple. We can see this on a daily basis with memes that reduce complicated issues to one simplistic point.

The problem of ideologies is that they are simplistic approaches to a complicated reality. Politicians and intellectuals who loudly proclaim one easily grasped solution for a widespread problem are usually being simplistic. They get lots of attention and high ratings.

Those who make accurate predictions are always more modest and are never simplistic.

We find a similar shift between “moral” and “moralistic.” The former is a word that conveys a positive meaning to most people. The latter rubs us the wrong way.

A person taking a moralistic stance is often simplistic as well. Another person’s problem is seen as the sole consequence of his or her ethical choices. There is a harsh dismissiveness to moralistic judgments. They are often assertions of dominance or even oppression.

To lead a moral life is an admirable and arduous undertaking. To lead a moralistic life only requires you to be a jerk.

There are similar distinctions between “righteous” and “self-righteous” and between “judgment” and “judgmental.” Ego and hypocrisy come to the fore when people set themselves up as morally or intellectually superior. It’s a very old problem.

“Scientific” has a positive connotation for most people most of the time. It is undeniable that the application of science has hugely increased our knowledge and control of the world.

“Scientistic” is a different story. Philosophers use it to denote an excessive reliance on science in matters of value and human knowledge. It postulates one method that unlocks all of social or moral or political life. It denies that religion or ethics or justice exist outside the observable experimental realities revealed by science.

Soviet ideology was scientistic and based on “objective laws” of dialectical materialism.

The noun form of the word is “scientism.” Nobody ever admits to being an advocate of scientism. It’s one of those terms that always seem applied to somebody else.

I have written this column as an experiment. There are no commas anywhere.

I hope these grammatically simple sentences are not simplistic.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School. His column appears Tuesday.

Today's Bible verse

“You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

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