Complexity: What’s in a Word?

The Walter Gordon Symposium is an annual conference co-hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College. In the lead up to the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium, students, speakers, faculty, and community members are invited to share their reflections on the theme of ‘Confronting Complexity’ in Canadian society. ​This year’s conference will take place on March 25 and 26, 2015.

Emily Macrae

The theme of the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium, an annual conference co-hosted by Massey College and the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto, is “Confronting Complexity.” Through a series of panels, as well as both introductory and keynote talks, the conference aims to explore different aspects of complexity in Canadian society. But what does that even mean?

I am not a linguist or a classicist. I do not speak any ancient languages, nor have I invented an algorithm to digitally dissect vocabulary. But despite these gaps in my own expertise, I do love words.

Putting this passion to use, I propose to examine the word that is at the core of the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium. Through an amateur analysis of the word “complex,” I hope to draw attention to the way in which we use, abuse, and misuse language in an academic context. Slicing the word into syllables, I get: COM-PLEX.

1) COM

These three letters bring to mind a range of words, from “community” to “company”. However, I would like to focus on two words in particular as they relate to this year’s conference.

The first word is “comprehensive.” As any PhD student preparing for his or her comprehensive exams can tell you, the word comprehensive suggests something that is all encompassing. In my own discipline of urban planning, policy-makers and private developers alike are still struggling to crawl out from under the shadow of another application of this term: “rational comprehensive planning” was an approach common in the 1950s and 60s that sought to investigate every possible consequence of a given land use scenario.

Yet comprehensive is just a few letters away from another word: “comprehensible.” In the case of urban planning, the rational comprehensive process neglected to account for limits to human capacity and material resources. This meant that drastic changes to the built environment did not make sense to local residents.

The relationship between the words “comprehensive” and “comprehensible” is especially valuable to understanding a conference on the theme of complexity. Although the Walter Gordon Symposium encourages comprehensive conversations, these discussions are most relevant if they remain comprehensible to audience members from a variety of backgrounds.

In my exploration of the first syllable of the term “complex,” the second word that I would like to focus on is “compound.” Here, a distinction must be made: while it is true that Massey College can seem like an intellectual compound of sorts, I am not thinking of the word in its architectural sense.

As either a noun or a verb, the word compound refers to pieces that come together and build off of one another. In Canada today, various issues intersect to create compound problems that are all the more difficult to solve because of the connections that exist between these component parts – creating what is, undeniably, a complex policy environment. At the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium, we invite students, scholars, and practitioners to come together inside a red brick compound in order to consider the complex, compound problems facing Canadian society.


In the search for phrases that connect to the second syllable of the word complex, an expression of quantity captures the scope of complexity.

The term “googolplex”, for example, is one to consider. This term may have inspired the Google search engine, but whatever its origins or imitators, a googolplex is – quite simply – an incredibly large number. For those of you who have not already rushed to google the exact number, a googol is the number one followed by one hundred zeroes. By extension, a googolplex is the number one followed by a googol of zeroes. This almost unimaginable number is a useful reminder of the vast nature of complexity.

Another word that comes to mind here, if you take away the letter ‘p’ from the above syllable, is “lexicon” – a fancy Greek term for vocabulary. After a brief foray into the world of numbers, the word lexicon brings our discussion back to that of language. Which words do we know? When do we use certain words? Why do we choose these words over others?

Academic discourse often employs specific vocabulary, yet a high degree of specialization in the choice of language can sometimes detract from its meaning. Rather than competing to see who can fit the most multisyllabic words into a single sentence, we need to choose language that is easily understood by a much broader audience than those within a particular field of expertise.

Complexity is, of course, a complicated concept to define. This lighthearted discussion of the word complex attempts to introduce the reader to a few of the possibilities and pitfalls that speakers, organizers, writers, and attendees alike may encounter in investigating the topic of complexity at this year’s Walter Gordon Symposium.

Emily Macrae is a member of the Organizing Committee of the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium. She is pursuing a Masters of Urban Planning at the University of Toronto, and her research interests include active transportation, accessibility, and urban arts events. You can read more about Emily’s views on all things urban and artistic on her blog.

[Image: Flickr]

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