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People talk of a complete mess, a complete failure, a complete success, a complete misunderstanding...etc.

What do they mean by complete? In what sense can a failure, a sense of inferiority, a swindle, etc., indeed, anything other than things like jig-saw puzzles which have a specific number of pieces, be said to be complete?

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  • Don't most people go through life in a partial muddle?
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 11, 2015 at 22:04
  • @HotLicks but oddly you don't hear of anyone being in a partial muddle. Usually they are in a complete muddle.
    – WS2
    Dec 11, 2015 at 22:14
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    The jigsaw reference is interesting. There are two meanings to the phrase "the jigsaw puzzle is complete": (a) there are no pieces missing, and (b) the puzzle has been solved. In this context, complete is akin to perfect: describing something that has reached a limit, or apogee of sorts. A "complete muddle" could not be any more muddled.
    – JHCL
    Dec 11, 2015 at 22:37
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    (An amazing number of questions here are the result of the confusion between English and mathematics. Words like "complete", "absolute", "total", "almost", "half", et al, are not rigorously defined in terms of expressing a numerical degree or percentage of something, but rather express a sort of socially agreed-on level of severity, one that can vary considerably from one context to the next. This allows a relatively small number of words to cover a broad range of concepts and contexts, and rarely with a significant loss of critical preciseness.)
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 11, 2015 at 22:40
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    Well, I'm a bit muddled. I do not feel utterly confused or a total mess. Just slightly off-kilter. I guess things could be somewhat better.
    – bib
    Dec 11, 2015 at 23:23

3 Answers 3

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I think it is used with the following meaning,

complete:

  • Absolute; thorough: complete control; a complete mystery.

(AHD)

Complete:

  • Of an action, state, or quality: Realized in its full extent; entire, thorough.

Early usage
examples:

  • 1645 Ord. Lords & Com., Susp. fr. Sacram. 1 Sincerely to endeavour the compleat establishment of Purity and Unity.

  • 1663 Gerbier Counsel 19 A man of compleat stature.

  • 1727 De Foe Syst. Magic i. iv. (1840) 115 The greatest and best principles are often illustrated..by their completest contraries.

(OED)

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  • Surely not absolute? How could an inferiority complex be absolute? But people say he has a complete inferiority complex. Or how could a work of art be an absolute masterpiece?
    – WS2
    Dec 11, 2015 at 21:56
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    A complete (by extension, total) inferiority complex.
    – user66974
    Dec 11, 2015 at 22:05
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    @WS2 People say “complete inferiority complex”? As in, he doesn't just have a partial inferiority complex, but a whole one? That sounds utterly bizarre to me. “An absolute masterpiece”, on the other hand, sounds perfectly normal and straightforward to me. Dec 12, 2015 at 1:02
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Perhaps I did not chose a good example, but one certainly hears of a complete idiot.
    – WS2
    Dec 12, 2015 at 9:00
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Wiktionary has a distinct (not listed in Oxford Online Dictionary or Merriam-Webster) definition of the word complete as follows:

Generic intensifier.

  • He is a complete bastard!‎
  • It was a complete shock when he turned up on my doorstep.‎
  • Our vacation was a complete disaster.‎

Sometimes, it could be replaced by other words, as Merriam-Webster lists:

  • A complete renovation (thorough)
  • A complete silence (total or absolute)
  • A complete artist (highly proficient)

You could consider complete as a generic intensifier in your example.

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  • Yes, in that phrase (cliche) 'complete' is generally an intensifier. Regionally, 'perfect muddle' (for example) has the same force.
    – JEL
    Dec 12, 2015 at 7:58
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Failure means a lack of success. Success sometimes means more then one thing.

If I'm attempting to make breakfast consisting of milk, toast, and bacon then I fail if I burn the toast. But it's a complete failure if on top of the burnt toast the milk is curdled and the bacon is racid.

So a complete muddle must muddle in every possible way there is to muddle.

Otherwise your muddle is a bit muddled.

P.S. if you use 'complete' as simply a generic intensifier and are ignoring parts that are not in the state you claim (failed, muddled, etc) then I say it's actually incomplete and you are engaging in hyperbole. But that's because I'm a complete git.

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