Final Word

SA pushes for ‘complicit’ as word of the year

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For not knowing when they should have known that evil was perpetrated, some high-ranking South Africans moved under the umbrella of Dictionary.com’s ‘Word of the Year,’ 2017.

Based on the number of times a word is looked-up on its website for its meaning and related information, the word complicit won the 2017 title, ‘word of the year’ easily when its lookups jumped-up by a massive 10 000% on March,12 in average daily occurrence. And, although these mostly came from Americans after Ivanka Trump, daughter of US president Donald Trump, became associated with the word, the type political environment that it happened in has South African echoes.

The curiosity in the meaning of the word was first triggered when Ivanka Trump portrayed in a satirical ad on the TV show Saturday Night Live as woman hawking a perfume called Complicit. This scent was marketed as “The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t.”

Then, the lookups for complicit again spiked by 11 000% on April 5 when the real Ivanka was interviewed on the CBS TV This Morning’s show and asked about accusations that she and her husband Jared Kushner are complicit in the actions of her father.

She responded: “I don’t know what it means to be complicit. If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit.”

After the interview the Merriam-Webster dictionary sent out a tweet, which included a link to the definition of the word, which is defined as “helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.”

However, a fuller definition reads:Complicit means ‘choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.’ Or, put simply, it means being, at some level, responsible for something . . . even if indirectly.”

To the notion of being complicit, even if indirectly is especially applicable in present-day South Africa, and we will return to that presently.

Word origin

Merriam-Webster noted that the word, which it first attests in 1856, is likely a back-formation of complicity (from the French word complicité) notoriously defined in the late 17th-century as “a consenting or partnership in evil.”

If one takes a deeper look at the roots of the word, it ultimately comes from the Latin complicāre, “to fold together.” You can imagine how aiders and abettors are “folded together,” or complicit, like partners in crime. The root verb here is plicāre, whose basic meaning is “to fold.”

A whole string of words in modern English can be traced back to this original root, complicāre, mostly via French during the era of Middle English. These include some words quite common in South Africa’s present-day vocabulary, like: Deploy, from displicāre (“to unfold” or “scatter”); and Exploit from explicār (likening something “folded out” as an “action, deed, outcome”).

And, then closely related to Latin’s plicāre is plectere, a verb referring to a specific kind of folding, like “to twist, plait, braid.” From this root we get words like: Complex, with its many parts “twisted together;” Duplex, literally “twofold;” Multiplex, “many twists and turns;” and Perplex, literally “folded through,” hence “entangled” and “confusing.”

For me one of the more interesting ones, while so many senior members of the Governing African National Congress seem to be covering-up for one another in the string of scandals that hit government in recent years, is term comrade also French’s complicité (complice), in denoting "accomplice, comrade, companion" (14c.), from Late Latin complicem.

Final word

But, getting back to that definition of complicity, of being “responsible for something . . . even if indirectly,” how is it possible that senior politicians and government administration managers claim total innocence of things having gone wrong at institutions like Eskom. Or, even worse evil happening at health care facilities in Gauteng.

How can they claim no responsibility because they did not know what was happening, when they were employed and paid well to know? The “hear no-, see no- and speak no evil” mantra is simply not good enough to spare them the complicit label.

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by Piet Coetzer

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