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MUCH IN the news these days, the words “complicity” and “collusion” warrant inclusion in my series of Etymology for our Times. It’s most appropriate to compare and contrast these two words in the linguistic as well as ethical sense. Indeed, this calls for a bit more research in Merriam-Webster and The Compact Edition of the Oxford University Dictionary.
Complicity, according to Merriam-Webster, is “association or participation in or as if in a wrongful act.” There’s enough legal slack in this to justify just about any shenanigans.
“Association”? In what precise way, Mr. Mueller?
“As if in”? Mr. Mueller, my client requests the definition of “if.”
In origin, “complicit” and “complicate” share the same Latin root, complicare, meaning “to fold together.” This sounds innocent enough until you realize that the words “accomplice” and “complicitous” are cut from the same linguistic cloth.
The now-obsolete English word “complice,” dating back to the 14th century, defined “an associate or accomplice especially in crime.” It came from the French, though let’s not cast any aspersions in that direction.
“Aspersion”? Another word for another day. And people wonder why I don’t just stick to writing about cars.
The 1971 Oxford English Dictionary says complicity is “The being an accomplice; partnership in an evil action….” It cites a 1656 source, Blount Glossogr. but also notes, tantalizingly “[Not in Johnson.]”
Why the great linguist Samuel Johnson didn’t get involved remains a mystery to me; he wrote about everything else.
The OED softens complicity with its second definition: “State of any complexity involved, = COMPLEXITY.”
Collusion is a rather stronger kettle of fish. Merriam-Webster defines “collusion” as “a secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.”
Ah, I see. Like a deal of quid pro quo (yet another promising etymological tidbit!) involving an hotel, a foreign bank, and a sanction.
M-W says the word collusion’s first known appearance in the English language, Middle English, actually, was in the 14th century. It got there by way of Anglo-French, from the Latin colludere, whence also the word “collude.”
Their Latin origin is more benign, indeed, downright fun. The Latin verb ludere means “to play.” The prefix “col” implies “playing together.” It was only later, in the 1300s, that collusion took on its illegal or deceitful overtones.
The OED defines collusion as “secret association or understanding for the purpose of trickery or fraud; underhanded scheming or working with another; deceit, fraud, trickery.”
Once the OED gets its bit between its teeth, it sure does go on.
I’ll bet Middle English spelling bees were a hoot.
Complicity or Collusion? Briefly, it’s better to be accused of complicity than of collusion. I’d prefer being guilty of neither; but for some it appears too late. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018