Elicit and illicit – Similar, but completely different.

Elicit and illicit; two similar words with very different meanings, is the shared ‘licit’ part of a shared history?

Elicit – means to cause or provoke and the first record we have of it is from the 1640s when it entered our language from French. The word originally comes from the Latin ‘elicitus’ which is the past participle of ‘elicere’ – combining ‘el’ and ‘licere’. ‘El’ is really a version of ‘ex’, not as in previous but as is ‘extract’ – it meant ‘to draw out’ and came from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘eghs’ which meant ‘out’. ‘Licere’ meant to ‘deceive’ or ‘trick’. So elicit is literally to ‘to trick out a response’ but we tend to use it to mean to create one in any way.

Illicit means something that is not allowed or that is unlawful; it also comes from Latin, this time the word ‘illicitus’ which, similarly to today, meant ‘not allowed’ or ‘unlawful’. ‘Illicitus’ is a combination of ‘two words; ‘il’ meaning ‘in opposite to’, similar to how we have the word ‘illegal’. And ‘licitus’, the past participle of ‘licere’ meaning ‘lawful’ or ‘allowed’. ‘Licitus’ is also the root word for ‘licentia’, that we got back to in the post about ‘off-licences’.

So in fact, the ‘licit’ part is just a coincidence, language is a funny old thing, isn’t it?

If you have a word (or words) that you would like examined, email it to me at shane.kelly@treethinker.org

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