I am looking for an English word that would describe, for a concept, the property of being tricky to reason about. Something that does not fit naturally in the mind and causes us to reason incorrectly.

The closest I have come up with is "inscrutability" or perhaps "abstrusity". However, both convey the idea that the concept feels immediately opaque upon inspection. I would like a work that also works for describing concepts that may seem easy to reason about, but which end up being tricky.

Edit: some good suggestions already. I'm looking for something that doesn't necessarily have to be tricky, counterintuitive, or deceptive, but that could. The problem is that abstrusity seems to exclude concepts which may seem superficially simple. Complexity gets close, but it conflicts with another use of the work in the domain I am writing about (programming language theory).

Edit2: equivocality is a possibility, but too much emphasis is placed on ambiguity and it seems to exclude obscurity which can also be a source of confusion.

  • 2
    It is a difficult concept. It is a complex topic.
    – Drew
    Jun 22, 2016 at 16:38
  • Perhaps you want “deceptive” or “not as straightforward as it seems”. “Tricky” is also good and you’ve already used it in your title.
    – Jim
    Jun 22, 2016 at 16:50
  • 2
    A counterintuitive concept?
    – MetaEd
    Jun 22, 2016 at 17:00
  • Deceptive is doable: deceitfulness, but see edit.
    – Arthur B
    Jun 22, 2016 at 17:03
  • A confusing concept ? "causing bewilderment; difficult to follow; puzzling" also "an alien concept" it's used for something that does not fit in a normal pattern of thought of someone and therefore is tricky to think about.
    – P. O.
    Jun 22, 2016 at 17:32

8 Answers 8


As an alternative, consider intractable which can mean not easily controlled or directed, e.g. an intractable problem is problem for which there is no straightforward and efficient solution.


An enigma can be tricky to deal with. It can be a person, concept, or work. Enigmatic refers to the "problem."

A deception is some thing that is or can be purposefully meant to look like something it is not. An adjective like deceptive might work if you don't need a noun.

Simple looking situations can be misleading in that the solution might involve unseen, hidden, or not immediately apparent complexities.

Sometimes a solution is not immediately apparent (a construction). The worst problems are sometimes said to be political. Some problems are simply deep or elusive.

Seeming or seemingly can change smooth waters into precarious ones.


perplexity (noun)

something that is confusing and difficult to understand


The state of being intricate or complicated

Another possibility that I think is a stretch, but may contain the nature of subtle complexity you seem to be looking for is


This application of the word was inspired by the answers and comments to this other question.

"Textured" here is intended to mean "subtly complex"


Consider subtlety. The first definition for subtle fits reasonably well:

  1. Hard to grasp; not obvious or easily understood; barely noticeable.
    The difference is subtle, but you can hear it if you listen carefully.
  2. (of a thing) Cleverly contrived.
  3. (of a person or animal) Cunning, skillful.
  4. Insidious.
  5. Tenuous; rarefied; of low density or thin consistency.

A problem which is subtle is likely to not look terribly complex on the surface, but subtleties will likely cause those complexities to surface upon deeper examination. They may make reasoning about the problem much more complicated, especially since they complicate the mental model in subtle ways.

This also seems to fit your domain relatively well, as I have heard the word used in PL theory before, and I’ve absolutely used it myself in CS and programming contexts.

It also works in both the way you describe—used as an uncountable noun like “inscrutability”—or to refer to the problem itself—used as a countable noun, usually plural as “subtleties”.


Recondite might be what you're looking for, but (appropriately) it's not a word that most people will know. From Wiktionary:

recondite ‎(comparative more recondite, superlative most recondite)

1. (of areas of study and literature) Difficult, obscure; particularly:
    1. Abstruse, profound, difficult to grasp
    2. Esoteric, little known; secret  
    3. (of writers) Deliberately obscure; employing abstruse or esoteric allusions or references  
    4. (of scholars) Learnèd, having mastery over one's field, including its esoteric minutiæ  


A confusing or difficult problem or question.

  • Conundrum is good, but I'm looking for a noun describing a property of the problem, not the problem itself.
    – Arthur B
    Jun 22, 2016 at 17:08

Nebulous (vague, indistinct, formless, ill-defined - OED), or

vague (couched in general or indefinite terms; not definitely or precisely expressed; deficient in details or particulars; indefinite, indistinct; not precise or exact - OED), perhaps.


There are 2 words I like for this. One is precarious:

Dependent on circumstances beyond one's control; uncertain; unstable; insecure:


Thus, a precarious situation has the possibility of being a tricky one, or, depending on circumstances, though these circumstances are out of your control, it could end up being just fine.

The other is situation

The main defintion is

The combination of circumstances at a given moment; a state of affairs.

But a colloquial definition is to use the word without a qualifier to implicitly mean a tricky situation

A difficult or unpleasant set of circumstances; a problem.


The example wiktionary gives is

Boss, we've got a situation here...

So the word also can be something tricky or not.

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