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 For too long, Hollywood has been complicit in China's censorship. Carly Ortiz-lytle, Washington Examiner, "'Hollywood has been complicit': Ted Cruz targets Hollywood and China with new legislation," 29 Apr. 2020 Our government is complicit in an extortion that is an important contributor to income inequality in America today. Time, "How Healthcare Costs Hurt American Workers and Benefit the Wealthy," 20 Feb. 2020 Pro-democracy residents of Hong Kong have accused China of encroaching on that autonomy and Lam of being complicit. John Bacon, USA TODAY, "Hong Kong elections stunner: What pro-democracy landslide means," 25 Nov. 2019 But that rationalization doesn’t stop the feeling of knowing ourselves, every day, to be complicit in other people’s maltreatment, deprivation, and loss. Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, "The Radical Empathy of the Coronavirus Panic," 17 Mar. 2020 Aaron Harp was either complicit or derelict in allowing the alleged private meetings to occur. Hillary Davis,, "New lawsuit ratchets up claims of open-meeting violations in Newport city manager’s looming exit," 6 June 2018

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

3 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Complicit.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 5 Jun. 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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