Elicit vs. Illicit: What’s the Difference?

“Elicit” and “illicit” are close to being homophones; the two words sound almost exactly the same although they have different meanings. According to Merriam-Webster, the “E” is emphasized when pronouncing elicit (i-ˈli-sət). In addition to having distinct pronunciations, the two words also operate as different parts of speech. Elicit is a verb, and illicit is an adjective. Despite different spellings, meanings, pronunciations, and grammatical functions, “illicit” and “elicit” remain commonly confused words. In this article, we’ll give you a few tricks to help you remember which is which.

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Etymology

Since “elicit” and “illicit” sound very similar, you may wonder whether they come from the same root word.  

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “elicit” originates from the Latin word elicitus, meaning “draw out, draw forth.” In the 1640’s, the word first appeared in the English language with the definition “to draw out, bring forth or to light.”

The word “illicit” also entered the English language by way of Latin; however, it comes from illicitus, which means “not allowed, unlawful, illegal.” The word became part of the Old French language in the 1300’s and made its way into English vocabulary around 1500. 

Although both words come from Latin words containing –licitus, the roots are actually different. Elicit evolved from the root word lacere, “to entice, lure, deceive.” Illicit comes from licere, “to be allowed.” Licere derived from the Proto-Indo-European root leik-, “to offer, bargain, make a bid.”

Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines the word “illicit” as an adjective meaning, “not permitted, unlawful.” 

Elicit is a verb that means “to call forth or draw out (something, such as information or a response)” or “to draw forth or bring out (something latent or potential).” 

Synonyms

According to Thesaurus.com, synonyms for elicit include:

  • bring out
  • evoke
  • extort
  • extract
  • obtain
  • wrest
  • wring

Thesaurus.com lists the following as synonyms for illicit:

  • adulterous
  • bootleg
  • clandestine
  • contraband
  • furtive
  • illegal
  • illegitimate
  • immoral

Tricks and Tips

  • Remember that “illicit” has the same first three letters as “illegal”. Illegal and illicit are synonyms. 
  • Emigrate, emit, exhale, and explosion all contain the prefix ex-, which means “out”. Elicit begins with the same prefix and means “to draw out”.
  • The word “adjective” contains the letter “I”. If you’re using the word as an adjective, choose the spelling that starts with the letter “I”.
  • The word “verb” only contains the vowel “E”. If you’re using the word as a verb, choose the spelling that starts with the letter “E”.
  • Only illicit can be turned into an adverb. There’s no such word as “elicitly,” but “illicitly” is a word. 

Practice Test

  1. The question elicited / illicited a strong response. 
  2. New York prosecutors relaxed sentencing guidelines for elicit / illicit drugs. 
  3. The situation continued to elicit / illicit confusion. 
  4. The lease stipulated that elicit / illicit activity was forbidden within the unit. 
  5. She was looking for a way to elicit / illicit joy from the patient. 
  6. She traded the funds elicitly / illicitly and hoped to avoid paying taxes on her winnings. 
  7. He hoped to elicit / illicit more views with the new social media account. 
  8. They were used to eliciting / illiciting comments. 
  9. The elicit / illicit wildlife trade continued in spite of new laws. 
  10. Elicit / illicit a better answer.

Answers: 1) elicited 2) illicit 3) elicit 4) illicit 5) elicit 6) illicitly 7) elicit 8) eliciting 9) illicit 10) Elicit

The Words in Context

“Over the past decade, law enforcement has become better at tracking illicit activity on blockchains.”
Reuters, “Criminals Getting Smarter in Use of Digital Currencies to Launder Money

“Tesla Inc.’s entry to the S&P 500 may be stoking relentless controversy, but in a specialized market for risk assets the electric-car maker is eliciting cheers all round.”
Bloomberg, “Tesla Fuels $166 Billion Bonanza in a Risky Corner of Finance

“Methamphetamine is illicitly smuggled across much of Southeast Asia, China and Australia, part of a multi-billion dollar illegal trade in the drug.”
ABC News, “Malaysia Makes its Largest-Ever Crystal Meth Seizure

“‘The probes were designed to elicit fear through encounters with novel and potentially threatening stimuli,’ the study reads.”
Yale Daily News, “Yale Study on Distress in Autistic Toddlers Draws Ethics Concerns

“‘Luxury London homes are an “attractive method to launder illicit funds’, a government report has said as the National Crime Agency steps up its McMafia-style ‘dirty money’ investigations into suspect funds flooding into the country.”
The Guardian, “Luxury London Homes Still Used to Launder Illicit Funds, Says Report

“For the musicians involved — a range of artists, some Spanish-speaking, with expertise in classical, folk, and other genres — the project called for sensitive collaboration, eliciting words and melodies from people who didn’t necessarily consider themselves to be creative.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Lullaby Project Pairs Philly Caregivers With Musicians to Compose Original Songs for Their Kids

“The other worry is that preexisting immunity to Ad5 can attack the vaccine vector, which could explain why, in early trials, the CanSino vaccine elicited a weaker-than-expected antibody response.”
Science, “With Global Push for COVID-19 Vaccines, China Aims to Win Friends and Cut Deals

Sources:

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/illicit
  2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/elicit
  3. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/illicit?s=t
  4. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/elicit?s=t
  5. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=elicit
  6. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=illicit
  7. https://www.reuters.com/article/crypto-currencies-criminals-idUSKBN28J1IX
  8. https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/malaysia-makes-largest-crystal-meth-seizure-74709314
  9. https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2020/12/18/yale-study-on-distress-in-autistic-toddlers-draws-ethics-concerns/
  10. https://www.theguardian.com/money/2020/dec/21/luxury-london-homes-still-used-to-launder-illicit-funds-says-report
  11. https://www.inquirer.com/news/lullaby-project-world-cafe-live-carnegie-hall-weill-music-institute-20201220.html
  12. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/11/global-push-covid-19-vaccines-china-aims-win-friends-and-cut-deals