words: complex, but not frightening

I was reading an article in the New York Review of Books called “A Hemingway Surprise.” It’s about an exhibition at the Morgan Library called “Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars.”

It’s a very interesting article, but one thing that particularly caught my attention was this, talking about a page of revisions to the story “Indian Camp,” where the word “frightened” was replaced by “afraid”:

“There is visible art in the substitution of ‘afraid’ for ‘frightened’—taking the stronger and more grown-up word to repeat the fear…”

This caught my eye — the distinction between “frightened” and “afraid.” I’m not sure about “more grown-up,” but the thing that strikes me is that “afraid” is an adjective, while “frightened” is an adjective based on a verb, so it implies action.

If someone is frightened, then someone or something must have done some frightening. If someone is afraid, then that’s just their state of being — no initiating action is implied.

I think about this because this is what’s struck me about the difference between “complex” and “complicated.” (I’ve talked about this in other places, but I don’t think I’ve talked about it here.)

The Chicago Manual of Style has a section called “Good usage versus common usage,” and “complex” and “complicated” aren’t included there. The dictionary (Merriam-Webster Colegiate, of course) notes that “complex” “does not imply a fault or failure” (implying, therefore, that “complicated” and the other synonyms do).

This is how the distinction appears to me:

Complex is an adjective, a state of being. Some things are naturally complex, such as ecological systems, meteorological systems, and so on. No fault or failure is implied.

On the other hand, if something is “complicated” (based on a verb), that implies that somebody has been doing some complicating. When somebody’s relationship status on Facebook changes to “It’s complicated,” that usually means somebody did something.

Anyway, is this one of those old-fashioned distinctions that most people ignore these days, or am I just making this up?

I’m prepared to follow it either way, of course. 🙂

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