com·​plic·​it | \ kəm-ˈpli-sət How to pronounce complicit (audio) \

Definition of complicit

: 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.”

Examples of complicit in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Disney’s partner — the Turpan Security Bureau — is complicit in these atrocities. Jimmy Quinn, National Review, "Disney Should Suffer for Willful Blindness to Chinese-Government Atrocities," 9 Sep. 2020 In most cases the orphanages were said to be complicit. Rosebell Kagumire, Quartz Africa, "The US is clamping down on fraudulent child adoption from Uganda as birth parents fight back," 24 Aug. 2020 Cows alone contribute 6 percent of total GHGs, and beef production is complicit in record methane levels, devastating deforestation, and groundwater contamination. Jan Dutkiewicz, Wired, "Burgers Won't Save the Planet—but Fast Food Might," 7 Aug. 2020 The choice becomes whether to speak up or not, enduring microaggressions and discrimination, and sometimes feeling complicit in the theater’s actions. oregonlive, "Award spurs broader conversations about racism in Portland theater," 6 Aug. 2020 Police did not say how the unidentified juvenile suspect was allegedly complicit in Nunez’s death. Kc Baker,, "14-Year-Old Arrested for Alleged Role in Murder of Conn. Teen Lured to His Death on Snapchat," 4 Aug. 2020 Jason Williams' Politics Extra columns Why Democrats are also complicit in Householder mess Solution to county's Paul Brown Stadium money problem? Jason Williams, The Enquirer, "PX column: Why new leadership is needed now on The Banks project. 'We'll evaluate that,' Commissioner Driehaus says," 1 Aug. 2020 Even as Trump has ignored the law and the Constitution, and has abused his power for personal and political gain, Gardner has been complicit in Trump’s degradation of the Oval Office. Morgan Carroll, The Denver Post, "Morgan Carroll: All the lies Trump will tell Coloradans when he comes to town," 19 Feb. 2020 For Biles, Nichols, and other survivors of Nassar’s abuse to speak out against him and the people and organisations that were complicit is awe-inspiringly brave. Mirel Zaman,, "Simone Biles Speaks Candidly About Larry Nassar’s Abuse in Vogue," 9 July 2020

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.

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First Known Use of complicit

1861, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for complicit

see complice

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Time Traveler for complicit

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The first known use of complicit was in 1861

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Last Updated

14 Sep 2020

Cite this Entry

“Complicit.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Sep. 2020.

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How to pronounce complicit (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of complicit

formal : helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way

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