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.”

Examples of complicit in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web And—in ways that are becoming increasingly apparent at the time of writing—a man who was actively complicit in the slave trade. Adam Smyth, Smithsonian Magazine, 16 May 2024 According to probable cause affidavits, the teens were described as complicit in the carjacking. Omar Rodríguez Ortiz, Miami Herald, 15 May 2024 See all Example Sentences for complicit 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'complicit.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

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 May. 2024.

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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