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    Ideas | Mark Peters

    When did ‘collusion’ become the new ‘conspiracy’?

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    It’s hard to say what the 2017 Word of the Year might be, but if the lexicographers and word enthusiasts of the American Dialect Society got together today, a strong candidate would be “collusion.”

    This word and its variants have filled headlines, social media posts, and casual chatter all year, thanks to the ongoing investigation of possible collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. Even though collusion isn’t exactly a legal concept — in fact, perhaps because it’s not — we’re all colluding to make this word omnipresent.

    “Collusion” — borrowed from French — has appeared in English since at least the late 14th century, when it was used by poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition has remained fairly stable over time: “Secret agreement or understanding for purposes of trickery or fraud; underhand scheming or working with another; deceit, fraud, trickery.” A use in Robert Boyle’s 1690 book “The Christian Virtuoso” has dated spelling, but a contemporary meaning, describing, “The subtil Cheats and Collusions of Impostors.”


    The verb “collude” doesn’t show up till the 1500s, well after “collusion” entered English. That makes “collude” a back formation — a shorter word formed from a longer word, creating a word root after the fact. This counterintuitive process is pretty common. For example, you would think “edit” came before “editor.” But “editor” was first and “edit” is a back formation. This is a common way of forming verbs such as “bartend” (from “bartender”) and “liaise” (from “liaison.”)

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    Several variations of “collusion” have been coined over the years, such as the nouns “colluder” and “collusioner” and the adjectives “collusive” and “collusory.” A form in William Thompson’s 1746 book “The Royal Navy-men’s Advocate” is dripping with appropriate contempt: “Both must act collusively, like two knavish Lawyers for a mutual Benefit.”

    Wackier forms can be found today in social media. In response to a story about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer, Sheryl Canter tweeted, “Can’t get much more collude-y than this!” Regarding Mitch McConnell’s actions during the 2016 campaign, Steve Hammell wrote, “Gee, that does seem awfully collude-ish, doesn’t it?” There have also been recent uses of “colludery,” “collude-fest,” “collusion-ish,” and “collusion-y.”

    For all the talk of collusion, it isn’t exactly a crime in the political arena — but conspiracy is. The US criminal code provides an explanation of conspiracy that matches commonplace descriptions of collusion: “If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

    So why do we talk about collusion rather than conspiracy, when conspiracy is the actual legal term? Maybe because “conspiracy” has been devalued in the public imagination due to the prominence of conspiracy theorists. The word “conspiracy” is associated with fake moon landings, 9/11 truthers, and — brace yourself — NASA enslaving children on Mars. “Collusion” isn’t the right word for a criminal court, but it’s just right for the court of public opinion.

    Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.