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March 1, 2013

I have been marking a whole bunch of essays on children’s literature for the Open University recently. It’s noticeable how many of the students, in wanting to point out that children’s literature tends to use comparatively simple vocabulary, or presents a simple view of the world, or has a simple style, instead use the word simplistic. I think the students who make this mistake are choosing a word that seems more impressive, more academic-sounding and essay-ish; but it is a mistake, of course, for simple and simplistic do not mean the same thing. Simple may be a neutral term or it may be a positive one; but it’s never negative. Simplistic on the other hand is always negative. It means excessively or inappropriately simple; over-simplified; simplified to an extent that implies stupidity or foolishness. The simple life is good. The simplistic life is not.

This got me thinking about the suffix -istic and how it often has negative connotations. Being moral is a good thing, but being moralistic isn’t: it implies fussy or unnecessary moralising. Just so, being paternalist might be OK, but being paternalistic is not. And while being realistic is no bad thing, it is not as good as being real.

I’m not sure how widespread this rule is as I can’t offhand think of any other examples. Can anyone think of any, which either support or controvert my theory? 

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  1. I think you’ve made a great point. We often dismiss children’s books because they are simple- but they are actually very culturally and historically grounded as a genre of literature. The problem with the suffix “istic” is, as you’ve pointed out, that it will change the meaning of a word. the idea that something is “ish” or “istic” often assumes that there can be a overlap in binary terms. Sometimes binary terms can build up structures; other times it’s necessary as a part of language.

    Simplistic-Writing in a way that is simple- Well, things are either simple or complex- what leads the analyzer with the impression that the language can achieve both a simple and a complex meaning of understanding. The language may be simple, the interpretation may not be. In this case, there has to be a separation. It either is or it isn’t, and to ignore that is a problem.

  2. Your theory does seem to apply in most cases. But I’ve thought of one that contravenes it. Someone who is fascistic isn’t particularly pleasant. But it doesn’t make them a fascist. Fascists are much nastier.

    • Yes, you are right. in this case, the suffix -istic seems to mean ‘-ish’; having a tendency towards rather than being the full-blown article. And maybe that’s how this suffix generally operates – so that if it’s applied to something that is usually good, it means not quite as good; but if applied to something that is usually bad it means not quite as bad?

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