The Japanese have a term for something that appears simple but is actually very complex in detail: Shibui. It should be said that this is only one aspect of Shibui, as with many Japanese words/concepts.

Is there a term for the opposite: something that appears hopelessly complicated, but in actuality is quite simple, whether this is because it follows a subjectively unknown pattern, or because of the subjective perspective of the person?

  • 1
    Something as complicated as the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" and as simple as "42"? ;-)
    – Stephen
    Dec 15, 2011 at 19:43
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    Your question looks deceptively complex :)
    – Terry Li
    Dec 15, 2011 at 19:55
  • Something that's fractal gains its complexity by repeating geometric patterns at increasingly smaller scales.
    – Gnawme
    Dec 15, 2011 at 20:55
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    If you mean 渋い, then I disagree with your interpretation. The Wikipedia entry you cite is a Western interpretation of the term, which applies Western frosting to what is essentially a Japanese idea. Things that are shibui really are simple, not complicated. They have nuances, but that does not make them complicated. There isn't enough room in this comment to elaborate, but you would do well to acquaint yourself with the culture that produced this term before generalizing.
    – Robusto
    Dec 17, 2011 at 15:28
  • @Robusto初夢 Thanks for the clarification; I never meant to offend with an incomplete transliteration; in fact, I never assumed I could fully translate/understand the term itself. I will not even try now. I apologize for the offense, and I'll try to refrain from committing it again.
    – BenCole
    Dec 20, 2011 at 17:14

5 Answers 5


In OP's context, everything is either simple or complex, and for any given thing, either it's obvious which applies, or the appearance is deceptive.

Things that both appear to be, and really are, simple are hardly worth mentioning. Nor is it normally worth saying that something which appears complex really is complex. So the only cases worth mentioning are things that look simple but are actually complex, and things that look complex but are actually simple.

As others have noted, the first case is often called deceptively simple. We often admire things which are superficially simple, but which we know are actually complex, so it's effectively a complimentary expression - which once given is often followed by an explanation/discussion of the "hidden" complexity.

But we don't admire complexity for it's own sake - quite the reverse, in fact. If you're giving a value judgement on something meeting that criterion, you'd probably say something more scathing than deceptively complex - which barely exists by comparison with the "standard" version (I think people avoid the inversion partly because it might be misconstrued as a compliment).

In practice the context where we need to say something is simpler than it appears is often when we're speaking to someone else who is confused by the superficial complexity. In which case we reassure them by saying something like "It's easy, really". And then proceed to explain it.

Just because there are four positions in the "truth table" under discussion, doesn't mean we need a "matching set" of four names. Two are just trivial. The other two normally arise in different contexts (though in both cases it's likely you'll carry on by actually explaining whatever it is).

EDIT: The nearest "real-world" antonym I can think of to something that's deceptively simple is emergent complexity, a term often used of systems wherein a small number of simple elements are repeatedly recombined to create something complex. Particle physics, fractal designs, or living organisms, for example.

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    This answer is deceptively complex in that it is long and complicated yet says nothing. That's a lot of hand waving to say, "I don't know a word/phrase for the concept, and thus there must be no answer." Dec 16, 2011 at 5:23
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    @David Harkness: Rubbish. I'm saying there is no standard term, because we don't need it. Lanuguage is not symmetrical. Dec 16, 2011 at 13:17
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    I agree that there is no intrinsic need to name every concept in language, but that doesn't mean there isn't a word for this particular concept. I was just surprised that the OP accepted your "I don't know a word for this so there must be none" answer after only 3 hours. :) Dec 16, 2011 at 17:45
  • @David Harkness: I'm not saying there is no word/term. Of course we can all express such a straightforward concept. I'm simply saying there won't be anything that particularly functions as an "antonym" for deceptively simple, because the real-world contexts for using it are not "mirrors" of the original. Reassuring composite phrases using actually or really are far more likely. Dec 16, 2011 at 17:51

We call a thing which is actually simple but appears complex deceptively complex. Both OALD and CALD call something which is actually complex but appears simple deceptively simple.

  • @BenCole: note that phrases using deceptively are prone to misinterpretation. english.stackexchange.com/questions/25013/…
    – Marthaª
    Dec 15, 2011 at 23:35
  • I've upvoted this because if OP really needs a term, it's the best available - though I'm a bit irked that my answer "we don't normally need to reference this concept" has attracted nothing but downvotes. And I can't resist pointing out that Google books records just 7 instances of "it's deceptively complex" (all within the last decade or so), as against a couple of thousand for "it's deceptively simple". We really don't need this term, and often all it will do is confuse people. Mar 1, 2012 at 12:13
  • @Peter Shor: I think you're probably right - it seems to me most instances of "deceptively dangerous", for example, don't mean looks dangerous, but actually isn't. They mostly mean looks harmless, but is actually dangerous. Logically speaking I suppose for something that's already been identified as deceptive, there's no particular reason why the specified attribute should be the the appearance or the reality, so neither choice is inherently "erroneous". Nov 18, 2012 at 13:49

A 'ruse' is meant to deceive, to hide the truth, possibly by making something appear more complex than it is. Ruse does not explicitly relate to complexity vs. simplicity, but it does relate to the subjective perspective of the person: they are being deceived by a trick that can easily be exposed, thus revealing the truth. And truth is often simpler than deception.


The only term that comes immediately to my mind is "deceptively simple".

As an example, if I ask you to tell me the area of a triangle with sides 4, 7, and 11, you might go and dig up Heron's Formula (area=sqrt(s(s-a)(s-b)(s-c)), where s=(a+b+c)/2) and start calculating it, or you might notice that side a + side b = side c, and thus the "triangle" is actually 2 straight lines, and therefore the area must be 0.

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    Doesn't deceptively simple mean just the opposite - seems simple, but actually isn't?
    – user13141
    Dec 15, 2011 at 20:10
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    @onomatomaniak I concur; deceptively simple actually captures shibui quite well.
    – Gnawme
    Dec 15, 2011 at 20:13
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    By definition, any simplicity is deceptive, as it's merely masking the difficulty.
    – user13141
    Dec 15, 2011 at 20:25
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    The usage examples here describe things that are simple on the surface, but actually not.
    – Gnawme
    Dec 15, 2011 at 20:25
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    -1: Having just leafed through the first dozen or so contextualised instances of "it's deceptively simple" in Google Books, I didn't find a single one with this "inverted" meaning. They were all for things that look superficially simple, but are actually complex. OP asks for a term applicable to things that look superficially complex, but are actually simple. Mar 1, 2012 at 12:05

"Something that appears hopelessly complicated, but in actuality is quite simple" might be called a Gordian knot, of which wikipedia says,

The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem solved easily by cheating or "thinking outside the box" ("cutting the Gordian knot")

Note, this answer was suggested by answers to a related question, which apparently seeks the four-word phrase that the wikipedia quote shows in parentheses, or perhaps "thinking outside the box", or perhaps something else entirely.

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