What does it mean to be complicit?
If you’re a frequent user of Dictionary.com, chances are you already know. The online dictionary reported multiple spikes in lookups for “complicit” over the past several months — and ultimately chose the adjective as its word of the year for 2017.
“As 2017 comes to a close, it’s time for us to reflect on the words that impacted all of us this year — for better or for worse,” Dictionary.com said in announcing its decision Monday. “The word complicit has sprung up in conversations this year about those who speak out against powerful figures and institutions and about those who stay silent.”
Dictionary.com defines “complicit” as “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.” And according to the dictionary, complicity — or in some cases, the refusal to be complicit — was pertinent to some of the biggest news topics of the year, from politics to National Football League players’ anthem protests to the outpouring of personal experiences with sexual harassment and assault using the hashtag #MeToo.
“We chose our Word of the Year, in part, because of noteworthy stories of those who have refused to be complicit,” the dictionary said. “In the face of oppression and wrongdoing, this refusal to be complicit has been a grounding force of 2017.”
Two of the three spikes in searches for “complicit” on Dictionary.com involved Ivanka Trump, the oldest daughter of President Trump and a current White House senior adviser. The first came March 12, the day after “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketch featuring “Ivanka Trump” (played by Scarlett Johansson) in a mock commercial for a fake perfume called “Complicit.”
“She’s beautiful. She’s powerful. She’s . . . complicit,” a narrator purrs in a voice-over for the commercial, as Johansson-as-Ivanka glides around a formal reception in a rose gold sequined gown.
“Complicit: The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t,” the commercial concludes. “Also available in a cologne for Jared.”
The following day, searches for “complicit” increased 10,000 percent on Dictionary.com. Rival online dictionary Merriam-Webster also reported a spike in lookups for the word after the SNL sketch, which has more than 8 million views on YouTube.
Dictionary.com’s second Ivanka Trump-related spike occurred after an April television interview in which the first daughter defended herself against accusations that she was enabling her father’s rhetoric and policies by not speaking out forcefully.
“If being complicit is wanting to, is wanting to be a force of good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit,” she said in an interview on “CBS This Morning.” “I don’t know that the critics who may say that of me, if they found themselves in this very unique and unprecedented situation that I am now in, would do any differently than I am doing.”
She added: “I don’t know what it means to be complicit. But you know, I hope time will prove that I have done a good job and, much more importantly, that my father’s administration is the success I know it will be.”
After the CBS interview aired, searches for complicit spiked 11,000 percent, according to Dictionary.com.
The third-largest spike in lookups for the word took place Oct. 24, after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) announced that he would not be seeking reelection in 2018. In his lengthy and widely shared retirement speech on the Senate floor, Flake pushed back against Trump’s discordant presidency, as well as the divisive brand of politics Flake felt he would be condoning if he ran again:
It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our — all of our — complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.
Flake continued later: “The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics. Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.”
The word also made an appearance in other noteworthy political stories this year. When members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned en masse in August, in protest of Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, they wrote in an open letter to the president: “Your words and actions push us all further away from the freedoms we are guaranteed. Ignoring your hateful rhetoric would have made us complicit in your words and actions.”
Like many other online dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster and Oxford, Dictionary.com’s “word of the year” does not have to be new or one that had the most lookups. Instead, it is meant to be a word that “embodies a major theme resonating deeply in the cultural consciousness.” Last year, the dictionary chose “xenophobia,” or the “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.”
The cultural consciousness was no less dark through the eyes of those over at Oxford Dictionaries (which chose “post-truth” as its international word of the year in 2016, after its use skyrocketed during a contentious “Brexit” referendum and a divisive U.S. presidential election) and at Merriam-Webster (where “surreal” edged out “fascism” to be the 2016 pick). Compare that to 2015, when Oxford Dictionaries chose an emoji — the laughing-crying one — as its word of the year for the first time.
If Dictionary.com’s choice is any indication, we’re a long way off from the laughing-crying emoji.
“As many of you know from looking up the definition of complicit, there’s nothing positive or good about it,” Dictionary.com said. “In fact, being complicit is decidedly negative, as it means that a person is involved with someone or something that’s wrong. Whatever your politics, this meaning is not up for debate.”