Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


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.”

Robert Swan Mueller III, New York City-born 1944, American attorney, Bronze Star recipient U.S. Marine Corps, sixth Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, conservative Republican, currently head of the Special Counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Legal questions of complicity and collusion should be referred to him.

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 Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, two-volume microprint edition, Oxford University, 1971.

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.

Image from Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery, by Terry Jones et al, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006.

The OED cites our old pal Geoffrey Chaucer: “Yf he can by sume collucione do his neyghtbore wronge….”

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,, 2018


  1. Tom Phillips
    December 5, 2018

    Speaking of Mr. Mueller, Trump does not realize who he is dealing with. After a time with the FBI, he got a job with a law firm and was assigned a defense case. The defendants told Mueller they were guilty, and he told them they should plead guilty and go to prison. Mueller went back to the FBI.

  2. carmacarcounselor
    December 6, 2018

    Please refrain from threatening to limit your musings to automotive subjects. Paraphrasing somebody; “I came for the cars and stayed for the etymology.”

    • simanaitissays
      December 7, 2018

      Thanks, carmacarcounselor. As you might guess, I plan to continue on all that interests me (and, I hope, my readers).

Leave a Reply to carmacarcounselor Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: