Simple isn’t simple

The seemingly paradoxical title of today’s post is true: the simple word simple, which Spanish and English share, is not made up of a single element but originated as a compound of two. English took simple directly from Old French, where it had developed from two forms of what was etymologically a single word, Latin simplus and simplex; Spanish simple evolved more simply from simplus. The first element in both Latin compounds had come from the Indo-European root *sem-, which meant ‘one’ and ‘considered as one.’ The second element came from the Indo-European root *pel-, which meant the same as its English descendant fold and which also gave rise to the synonymous Latin verb plicare that is the source of Spanish plegar. Putting all this together in simple terms, etymologically: something simple has been folded up into one nice little package.

Linguists have put Latin simplex to work with the meaning ‘a word [unlike simplex itself!] which has no affixes and is not part of a compound.’ English toy is a simplex but Spanish juguete, with its diminutive suffix, is not (at least not if -ete is still perceived as a suffix).

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lensandpensbysally
    Sep 10, 2013 @ 11:57:00

    I’ve always been fascinated by the etymology of a word. The “reveal” spikes my use and interest. Thanks for the more than simple on simple.


  2. Jim in IA
    Sep 10, 2013 @ 13:42:46

    I always felt simple implied not very smart. Simple Simon met a pie man. Perhaps he was not a dull man.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 10, 2013 @ 13:49:12

      There is indeed that ‘not very smart’ connotation of simple. The sixth definition given in Webster’s 1828 dictionary was:

      Weak in intellect; not wise or sagacious; silly. The simple believeth every word; but the prudent looketh well to his going. Prov. 14.


  3. shoreacres
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 08:20:39

    Soooo… in a sense, a simplex is analogous to a prime number. Granted, it’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s close enough to get me to think about prime numbers, which is quite an accomplishment.

    There certainly are a variety of meanings folded into “simple”. I’ve always found simplicity of life or spirit a worthy goal, as does Lynryd Skynyrd . And what better example could there be of something simple being folded up into one nice little package than origami? Even an origami bookmark is too complex for me, let alone one of those cranes or doves!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 11, 2013 @ 13:46:02

      Yay, math! I’m glad to hear you’re primed to think about the subject. I didn’t talk about the mathematical definition of simplex here, but in two dimensions a triangle is a simplex because no simpler polygon is possible than one with three sides. As for music, I simply wasn’t aware of the song you linked to, and origami strikes me as complex, too.


  4. kathryningrid
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 17:57:05

    I think this one spun me so hard my inner gyroscope is still going. 😉


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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