Else-site, I got into a discussion with a member where the thread turned accusatory and defensive because I said a programming language had tricky details that you learned over time. I did not mean that it was a bad thing, only that there were features less traveled that really enhance the effectiveness of code.

One of the Definitions of 'tricky' given by M-W is "requiring skill or caution" and the other two are even more negative. Even "difficult to do or deal with" leans negative into the "It shouldn't be that difficult" realm. Yet difficult is not always bad. Sometimes it just is, mastery of any topic is difficult, and sometimes just knowing the subtle features is enough, it's a sign of a skilled practitioner to leverage these subtleties, and it's those I call tricky.

Am I off on my usage, and what resources exist to try to divine these usage subtleties?

I'm a native speaker, yet I can't always explain why I shade word meaning a certain direction that is not supported by a dictionary.

  • How does "difficult to do or deal with" lean negative into the "It shouldn't be that difficult" realm? I'm not sure what you mean by that, and as a consequence your question is unclear.
    – Spagirl
    Nov 22, 2016 at 15:11
  • I just mean that if you say, "That person is difficult to deal with" or "That problem is difficult to deal with." It's not a good thing, you'd avoid it if you could. That's not at all the shading of difficult that I mean to use, but perhaps it's tied up in "tricky" to be something you'd rather not do...
    – BenPen
    Nov 22, 2016 at 15:14
  • 'All words are infinitely polysemous.' (ie no two people have exactly the same take on any word). Connotations are to a considerable degree subjective. But when another denotation of a word has a different flavour, it's likely to have quite an effect on the intended sense's connotations. Nov 22, 2016 at 15:27
  • 5
    It seems very context-dependent to me. He's tricky definitely sounds insulting, and you can make it worse if you add so don't trust him. But this crossword puzzle is tricky sounds pretty neutral, and it can be made clearly positive if you add so you'll have a lot of fun solving it.
    – 1006a
    Nov 22, 2016 at 15:28
  • I agree with @1006a that the connotation of tricky is much more neutral when used in relation to a non-person thing. if it still worries you, you could substitute something like 'thorny', 'awkward' or 'subtle'. Thesauri are your friends.
    – Spagirl
    Nov 22, 2016 at 16:01

1 Answer 1


Tricky adjective 1.(of a task, problem, etc.) requiring care and skill because difficult or awkward. 2.deceitful or crafty. "I wouldn't trust her—she's tricky"

'Tricky' might have negative connotations when you're using it to describe a person, but not necessarily when describing a task or activity. An exception might be if you're using it to describe a precarious situation, e.g.:

This rope bridge is tricky

Which may imply that the bridge is dangerous, in that rope bridges aren't inherently difficult to cross, but in context might be perilous.

And according to Run DMC, there is nothing sinister about rocking a rhyme that's right on time, it's merely tricky.

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