com·​plic·​it kəm-ˈpli-sət How to pronounce complicit (audio)
: helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way
He was complicit in the cover-up.

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Complicit and Its Accomplices

Complicit is a relatively recent addition to English vocabulary, arriving in the mid-1800s. It is a back-formation from complicity “association or participation in a wrongful act,” which came straight from a French word of the same meaning, complicité, in the 1600s. The oldest English word in this family is the now-obsolete complice (pronounced /COMP-liss/)—defined as “an associate or accomplice especially in crime”—which dates back to the 1400s, when it came from French. These words ultimately derive from the Latin verb meaning “to fold together,” complicare, formed by combining com- (meaning “with,” “together,” or “jointly”) and the verb plicare, meaning “to fold.”

This literal meaning evolved into a figurative one: the definition of complicit, “helping to commit a crime or do wrong,” describes individuals who are “folded together” metaphorically. Complicity and the its cousins accomplice, complicitous, and complice are all part of this gang.

Complicare, in a second of its Latin senses, “to twist together,” is the root of another English word, complicate, which originally meant “to unite intimately by intertwining.” In this case, the idea of things “twisted together” makes sense as an image of something composed of many elements, that is, something complicated. The -pli- of these words is from plicare (“to fold”), which is also the root of ply, the verb meaning “to twist together” or the noun meaning “one of several layers.”

Other words that derive from plicare are also illuminated by their etymologies: explicit “revealed without ambiguity” ultimately comes from Latin explicare, meaning “to unfold,” while implicit, meaning “implied,” descends from a Latin verb whose roots literally mean “to fold in.”

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web If one law clerk knows that another clerk did it and assisted in the coverup, the former would be complicit in the breach. Alan M. Dershowitz, WSJ, 30 Oct. 2022 For Hartman, this shows how even abolitionists were complicit in reinforcing conceptions of abject Blackness while decrying slavery. Keeanga-yamahtta Taylor, The New Yorker, 17 Oct. 2022 Owners have driven a culture of disrespect, who are complicit in abusing their own players, have no place in this league and should be removed from governance immediately. Tara Sullivan,, 7 Oct. 2022 Debate had taught me to be complicit, encouraging mental habits—repression, toughness, and female coolness—that eased the way for the strongest or most ruthless to prevail without complaint. Tess Mcnulty, Harper’s Magazine , 17 Aug. 2022 Some opponents took to name-calling and attacked Collins for being naive or complicit. David Sharp,, 24 June 2022 Also, Jalal sometimes stops off for a quickie with his younger mistress (Shaden Kanboura), a secret Waleed now feels complicit keeping. Leslie Felperin, The Hollywood Reporter, 31 May 2022 And how complicit are people within that sort of structure, and obviously dealing with rape and how difficult that is to prosecute — and who’s telling the truth and male entitlement. Michael Schneider, Variety, 5 May 2022 Investigators found no evidence that the Taliban were complicit or negligent in the attack. Arkansas Online, 5 Feb. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'complicit.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History


back-formation from complicity, probably after explicit, implicit

Note: Strictly speaking, the derivation of complicit from complicity is not a back-formation, unless -y is taken as the suffix -y entry 2, which seems unlikely. The derivation presumably depends on the acceptability of complicit beside the established words explicit and implicit. A regularly formed adjective derivative of complicity is complicitous.

First Known Use

1861, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of complicit was in 1861

Dictionary Entries Near complicit

Cite this Entry

“Complicit.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 Nov. 2022.

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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