il·​lic·​it (ˌ)i(l)-ˈli-sət How to pronounce illicit (audio)
: not permitted : unlawful
illicitly adverb

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Illicit and Elicit

Illicit, while not exactly an everyday word, is far more common than its antonym, licit ("not forbidden by law, permissible"). Perhaps this is a function of our oft-noted fascination with bad behavior and boredom with rectitude. In any case, illicit may be used of behavior that is either unlawful or immoral. These categories frequently overlap, but they are not always synonymous, as some unlawful activities (illicit cigarette smoking) may not be considered immoral, while some immoral activities (an illicit affair) are not illegal. Illicit is occasionally confused with elicit because of the similarity in their pronunciations, but the two words have decidedly different meanings and functions: in contemporary English, elicit is a verb meaning "to get (a response, information, etc.) from someone," while illicit appears solely as an adjective.

Examples of illicit in a Sentence

The wedding is mounted in traditional Punjabi style, but underneath the formal fanfare simmer dysfunctional-family tensions, deep dark secrets, … and illicit affairs. David Ansen, Newsweek, 4 Mar. 2002
"Thank you, Lieutenant," she said, bowing her head, just as she might in everyday, civilian life, and I felt suddenly illicit in her presence, as though we'd slipped out of sight of our chaperons … Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life, 1999
The companies that carry cellular … have adopted a number of monitoring techniques to detect illicit calls … Paul Wallich, Scientific American, March 1994
He was arrested for selling illicit copies of the software. She had an illicit affair with her boss.
Recent Examples on the Web The House report points to a number of possible motives for the Chinese government allegedly aiding the production of illicit fentanyl. Emily Feng, NPR, 16 Apr. 2024 Federal prosecutors are reportedly investigating Meta for its role in the sale of illicit drugs on Facebook and Instagram, according to a Wall Street Journal report published last month. Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN, 13 Apr. 2024 So far, the rerouting of cargo has not significantly impacted the ability of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to detect and interdict potentially illicit or high-risk materials, the document said. Aaron Katersky, ABC News, 12 Apr. 2024 While Operation Plaza Spike is focusing on transnational criminal organizations, law enforcement will continue to identify and interject U.S. citizens who smuggle illicit drugs, Miller said. Sarah Lapidus, The Arizona Republic, 10 Apr. 2024 There was a crackle of illicit energy from the big man. Kevin Barry, The New Yorker, 8 Apr. 2024 In states like New York, the gap between what’s legal and what’s enforced has allowed illicit stores to pop up among the legitimate ones. Jane C. Hu, The Atlantic, 8 Apr. 2024 Oregon was the only state to decriminalize illicit drug possession. Sara Chernikoff, USA TODAY, 6 Apr. 2024 Among other topics that Yellen plans to discuss with her Chinese counterparts include bilateral cooperation on countering illicit finance and working on global issues such as climate change and financial stability, according to the Treasury Department. Laura He, CNN, 5 Apr. 2024

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

Word History


Latin illicitus, from in- + licitus lawful — more at licit

First Known Use

1506, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of illicit was in 1506

Dictionary Entries Near illicit

Cite this Entry

“Illicit.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


il·​lic·​it (ˈ)il-ˈ(l)is-ət How to pronounce illicit (audio)
: illegal
illicit drug traffic
illicitly adverb

Legal Definition


il·​lic·​it il-ˈli-sət How to pronounce illicit (audio)
: not permitted : unlawful
an illicit motive to defeat or evade the taxesIn re Haas, 48 F.3d 1153 (1995)

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