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

Some Brexiteers think that the civil service has been involved in an establishment stitch-up to make leaving the EU as hard as possible, and that Theresa May has been complicit in trying to steal Brexit from the true believers. Luke Mcgee, CNN, "Trump called the UK envoy a 'very stupid guy' and the timing couldn't be worse for Britain," 9 July 2019 This would ideally entail a frank discussion of how both parties have been complicit in the erosion of that authority. Greg Sargent, The Denver Post, "Sargent: Half the Senate told Trump not to abuse war powers against Iran," 28 June 2019 Many in the health care system, including hospitals, doctors and insurers, are complicit in this confusing mess, although all can justify their individual actions. J.b. Silvers, The Conversation, "Health care price transparency: Fool’s gold, or real money in your pocket?," 24 June 2019 Another version is that the United States federal government was complicit in allowing Texas plantation owners to continue to enslave people to receive the taxes yielded from more cotton harvests. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Juneteenth event draws big crowd; brings old friends together," 16 June 2019 They are seen as complicit in labour-market reforms which left-wing voters dislike, and share the blame for austerity measures enacted during the euro crisis. The Economist, "Denmark’s social democrats beat the migrant-bashers at their game," 9 June 2019 Your family members are complicit in covering this up. Amy Dickinson, Washington Post, "Ask Amy: Survivor’s family forces contact with her sibling abuser," 4 June 2019 The Houthi leadership has lashed out at both the Arab intervention and Western governments, which the group sees as complicit in the offensive. Margaret Coker, New York Times, "As Saudis Go to War, the Crown Prince Attends a Soccer Match," 14 June 2018 Thus the imperative of casting the NRA as the adversary and all who welcome its money and support as complicit. William Cummings, USA TODAY, "The Bubble: March for Our Lives protesters dismissed by conservatives," 26 Mar. 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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More Definitions for complicit



English Language Learners Definition of complicit

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

More from Merriam-Webster on complicit

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with complicit

Comments on complicit

What made you want to look up complicit? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


to form ideas or theories about something

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