Two weeks ago, I wrote about the concept of copyeditors’ “stop words,” words that draw our focus every time we read them in a manuscript. This week, I offer two more stop words: elicit and illicit. Spellcheck can’t save you from these confusables that, though they sound alike and have a lot of letters in common, aren’t etymologically related.
A grammar checker might catch a problem here, though, considering the words aren’t even the same part of speech.
Elicit is a verb meaning “to draw forth (something latent or potential) or draw out (as with information).” It comes from Latin e– “away” + lacere “allure.”
Russia, the embassy said, was not involved in the nerve attack. Any punitive measures against Russia would elicit a response, he said. Source
Take care when choosing between elicit and solicit. Soliciting means asking for something; eliciting means actually getting it. Plus, while elicit has a more or less neutral connotation, solicit (which comes from the Latin solicitare “to disturb”) skews negative and is usually reserved to describe more insistent or annoying entreaties, or worse.
Solicitation is often shorthand for “solicitation of prostitution,” though it describes any request for someone to perform an act that is:
Illicit is an adjective that simply means “unlawful,” though in my experience it carries a connotation of high crimes or moral turpitude. Jaywalking, stealing a candy bar, or building up a large collection of parking tickets, for example, are illegal, but few would reach for the word illicit to describe such crimes.
Illicit comes from the Latin prefix meaning “not” that appears variously as il-, im-, in-, or ir- + licere “to be permitted.” Licere is also where we get license.
Five companies identified as the ‘Big Five’ were named as the ones driving the illicit trade of Ugandan coffee. Source
To put the two words together: Entrapment might be defined as an attempt to elicit an illicit response.
“But Andy, if the il- is a prefix, does that mean I can drop it from illicit the way I can drop it from illegal and end up with an antonym?”
To quote Bob the Builder, “Yes, we can!” Though it doesn’t get nearly the play that illicit does, licit is a handy synonym for legal and lawful — as well as a licit Scrabble play.