As It Happens

This is why 'complicit' is's word of 2017

Lexicographer Jane Soloman explains why "complicit" is such a relevant word in news and politics right now.
A shot of a Saturday Night Live skit starring actress Scarlett Johansson acting as Ivanka Trump. The skit was a perfume ad spoof, advertising a fragrance called Complicit. (NBC)

Story transcript's word of 2017 is all about "responsibility and culpability," says lexicographer Jane Soloman.

The site defines "complicit," as "choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others."

The company said it picked the word because it's "indicative of larger trends that resonated throughout the year."

It also noted the term has been used frequently in U.S. culture and politics in stories about Russian election influence, mass shootings and widespread allegations of sexual assault and harassment. 

Soloman, a lexicographer who was involved in the decision, spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the word's relevance in 2017.

How did the number of look-ups for complicit compare to previous years?

Look-ups for the word complicit went up 300 per cent in 2017 as compared to 2016.

Russian election influence, the ever-widening sexual harassment scandal, mass shootings and the opioid epidemic helped elevate the word 'complicit' as's word of the year. (The Associated Press)

Do you think the people who are looking it up really don't know what it means?

I think that sometimes people look up words in the dictionary because they don't know what it means, but many times, people are going to a dictionary because they know what it means but they want to check to see if it means exactly what they think it means. There are a lot of reasons to look up a word in a dictionary beyond, "I don't know what it means."

Now in terms of complicit, I understand you've identified a number of spikes in searches for the word. The first came after an episode of Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live made a perfume commercial spoof. It was starring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump and it was selling a scent called Complicit.'The tagline for this scent was, "The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this but won't."

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake says 'I will not be complicit'

4 years ago
Arizona senator decries political climate, says he won't run again 1:46

Now, this is something that I came across in my research as we were trying to decide what we were going to pick for word of the year because it spiked in our data.

It was on March 12, the day after that Saturday Night Live [episode] aired. It spiked 10, 000 per cent. So there was a 10,000 per cent increase in look-ups the day after that aired for the word complicit.

There was another spike. This one also involved Ivanka Trump after an interview she gave to CBS News. ... She didn't know what it meant to be complicit. Maybe she was one of the people looking it up.

I don't know if she was, because she came up with her own definition for what it means to be complicit right before she said that. When asked if she and her husband were complicit in the actions of her father, she said, "If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I'm complicit."

This is really not at all what complicit means. Complicit is decidedly a negative term. At its core, it's a word about responsibility and culpability. It's a word about being held accountable for actions, behaviours and views. And here, she's saying it's about being a force for good and that's not at all what it means.

After Ivanka Trump used the word 'complicit' during an interview, saw a spike in people looking up the term. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The other spike actually does not involve Ivanka Trump. It was when Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who's been critical of Donald Trump, announced that he was not going to run for re-election. ... What do you make of his use of the word complicit?

One thing that he says is "silence can equal complicity." And I think it is really really interesting and I think it's true. Silence can often equal complicity. But sometimes, silence doesn't equal complicity.

There are many, many good reasons why someone might stay silent. It could be about fear of retaliation, fear of endangering one's safety or one's loved ones or knowledge that nothing will change.

Do you have any concerns about choosing a word that has some political weight that might look as if you are taking sides?

I guess there's always a fear that there will be people who get very, very upset about the word and who docks you or troll you on social media.

In terms of picking a word that may be seen as picking a side, I think that whatever side you're on, you can view this word as something that is a commonality.

This is one of these words that you can mirror back at you what you want to see in it. I think that we can find complicity where we look for it, if that makes sense.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Jane Solomon.


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