Know your words: Illicit

Posted on Fri 12 Aug 2011 @ 6.00am UTC

Previously, we covered the words unlawful, illegal and illegitimate.

Today, we’ll have a look at the word illicit and its related forms.

* * *

illicit (adj), illicitly (adv), illicitness (n), illicitous (adj)

These words date from 1645-55, from the Latin illicitus (implied in illicitous, 1611).

The general meaning of all of these words is simply contrary or not in line with accepted morality or custom — in other words, improper, prohibited, unauthorised, adulterous.

Lord Moronao seizes the beautiful wife of his retainer while the lady confidante waits behind the door. (From the 'Chirizuka Monogatari,' translated by Yoshiko Dysktra.)

illicit (adj)

The adjective illicit means disapproved (not permitted, not allowed) for moral or ethical reasons, often with some degree of secretiveness. The meaning is more related to morality than to ethics, for which we can use the word unethical.

Illicit sexual relations. (1)

I accuse nobody without proof, because I realise it’s just as bad
to accuse someone frivolously as to do something illicit.

The fight against the illicit traffic in cultural property the extent of
illicit trafficking has never been greater. (3)

The profits to be made encourage not only illicit plundering of
ancient sites but skilful forgeries. (4)

I do not have time this evening to unravel the complexities
of this apparently illicit relationship. (5)

As the supply chain is entirely illicit, there are no legitimate manufacturers
with whom the government can work to restrict supply. (6)

With illicit drugs, you can never be sure of what is in them. (7)

Illicit use of pharmaceutical fentanyls first appeared in the mid-1970s in the medical community and continues in the present. United States authorities classify fentanyl as a narcotic. To date, more than 12 different analogues of fentanyl have been produced clandestinely and identified in the U.S. drug traffic. (via) (8)

The adjective also has a specific (but probably questionable) legal meaning of ‘not legally permitted or authorised’ or ‘unlawful’:

Illicit brokering. (9)

“…illicit motive to defeat or evade the taxes…” (10)
(In re Haas [1995], 48 Federal Reporter, Third Series 1153)

Unless you are a lawyer, avoid the legal meaning (as in examples 9 and 10). Most lawyers worth their salt (and fees!) would simply say ‘not legally permissible’ or just plain ‘not legally allowed.’

illicit vs. elicit vs. illegal

Illicit is often confused with elicit (to draw out) and illegal (forbidden by law):

Asking if you understand will often illicit a grunt from you at best. (11: elicit)

Trivia: Below are good examples of using illicit and elicit in the same sentence:

How do you elicit any worthwhile information from
people having an illicit affair?

One should not elicit illicit sex from a prostitute. (13)

Is it possible to elicit an illicit response? (14)

illicitly (adv)

The adverb illicitly means in a manner improper or disapproved by accepted morality or custom, more often than not done in a concealed or secretive way (i.e. clandestinely):

The pair carried on their affair illicitly for years, unbeknownst to their families. (15)

illicitness (n)

The noun illicitness is the state/quality/condition of not conforming strictly to law or rules of morality or accepted custom:

The passion of a secret love affair is in its illicitness, for if not,
it would not be secret nor passionate. (16)

illicitous (adj)

The adjective illicitous is often given by dictionaries as a synonym (an alternative word having the same meaning) for illicit. The source for this is often cited as A Dictionarie of French and English Tongues by Randle Cotgrave (published by Adam Islip, 1611), which translates the French illicite to mean ‘illicitous, unlawful’ in English.

Today, the word illicitous is usually reserved for use in high literature and other literary purposes, and the everyday word is now illicit.

* * *


An extramarital affair may lead to your death

In 2008, an Italian research study reveals that illicit affairs can leave you with crippling migraines so serious that they could cause you to die. The research found men have a more severe feeling of guilt when cheating, resulting in increased stress and high blood pressure that may lead to a brain aneurysm. For the full story, see [here].

* * *


What is unlawful, illegal, illegitimate or illicit usually carry a certain immoral quality or property. Find out what it means to be immoral.

* * *

© Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Images: Lord Moronao via Kanji Press ♦ Threesome graphic via Health Jockey.

Posted in: Colour Section