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Mirriam-Webster defines suspicious as:

  1. tending to arouse suspicion
  2. expressing or indicative of suspicion

These two definitions differ significantly in their meaning. (1) implies the subject is the target, while (2) implies the subject is the actor. Context such as "Alice is suspicious of Bob." can help disambiguate, but a sentence like "Charlie is suspicious." can mean either "Charlie tends to arouse suspicion in others." or "Charlie tends to be suspicious of others." Is there a variant of this word that unambiguously connotes meaning (2)?

A few related questions have been asked here in the past, but none seem to answer this question or even specifically ask it. Ambiguous Adjectives asks for a word that describes this kind of ambiguity, and Suspect versus Suspicious focuses on the difference between the titular words when connoting meaning (1).

Several synonyms more concretely identify the subject as the actor, but these stray from the intended meaning in other ways:

  • Skeptical loses the negativity associated with the target. You can be either skeptical or suspicious of the statement "I have never committed a crime." but you can only really be skeptical of the statement "Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light." Ideally the word I'm looking for not introduce ambiguity regarding the negativity of the target.
  • Paranoid adds negativity associated with the actor, and implies that the subject's suspicions are unwarranted.

Stepping back, the word I'm looking for could be used in the phrase "Dave is a (word) person." and would indicate:

  • Dave has a propensity to be suspicious of things, but these suspicions are not so extreme as to be considered paranoia.
  • The targets of these suspicions are things that are illicit, out of place, or otherwise considered potentially negative. For example, Dave would certainly be suspicious of an unmarked van parked in front of his house, but he still believes in the accuracy of the daily weather forecast as much as anyone else.

"Suspicious" really seems to convey the target attributes well, but has this ambiguity regarding who the target is. So far I'm leaning towards "Skeptical" since I want it to be perfectly clear that the subject is the actor, not the target, of suspicion. Can I do any better?


In case it helps, the word will be used to describe an object in a software library that tends to be suspicious of the things that interact with it, and takes proactive measures to guard itself against potential negative action. SuspiciousWidget is definitely not what I want, because at first glance you might think that there's something wrong with the widget. ParanoidWidget I don't think would be allowed due to its negative connotations. SkepticalWidget is an option, but for some reason it seems like the naming is sarcastic due to the loss of the connotation that the things Widget cares about represent serious problems.

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  • Doubting or questioning both indicate agency. Not sure about widgets.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 1 at 20:54
  • I don't have a direct solution to suggest given the parameters of your question, but how about staying clear of attitude words and focusing on something the widget actual does, like one of the following ideas: GardianAngelWidget, FilterWidget, VettingWidget, GatekeepingWidget, CounterMeasureWidget, CounterAgentWidget, or SentinelWidget? Feb 1 at 21:14
  • "...takes proactive measures to guard itself against potential negative action." Maybe: DefensiveWidget Feb 1 at 21:16
  • WatchfulWidget. DoubtingWidget (cf. DoubtfulWidget). Feb 1 at 21:29
  • Don't confuse suspicious with suspect. suspicious depends on the directionality of the sentence.
    – Lambie
    Feb 1 at 21:30

2 Answers 2

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Wary carries the meaning you want, though I was a little surprised to find this definition in Cambridge Dictionary:

wary [adjective] ...

not completely trusting or certain about something or someone:

  • I'm a little wary of/about giving people my address when I don't know them very well.

...

  • Tourists should be wary, as pickpockets are known to operate in this area.

YourDictionary has the broader definition not referencing potential malevolent agents (though even 'suspicious' can be directed at say a dangerous-looking cornice):

Wary is defined as watchful or cautious

as does Lexico:

wary [adjective] ... Feeling or showing caution about possible dangers or problems.

So

  • I am very wary of stepping nearer the edge of the cliff.

is a typical example without a malignant intelligence being involved.

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Yes, but it is exceedingly rare, perhaps archaic, and mainly (although not solely) concerned with mental health.

It may be a little strong (and rare) for your purposes.

From Collins Dictionary

suspicional in American English (səˈspɪʃənl)

ADJECTIVE

of or pertaining to suspicion, esp. morbid or insane suspicions.

And OED

suspicional adj. pertaining to suspicion.

1890 Alienist & Neurologist. XI. 347 The same emotional mobility and suspicional tendencies which characterized her gifted son.

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  • 'Of or pertaining to suspicion' doesn't disallow 'tending to arouse suspicion'. Mar 4 at 17:33

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