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The convoluted paths of etymology lead us from many English words* to the Latin verb plicare – to fold or weave. Here we look at three examples common in academic writing – imply/implicate, explicate, and complex/complicated.

In everyday usage, when you imply something you are leaving something tacit, unstated but clearly understood from the situation – not making the underlying message explicit, but indicating indirectly, hinting. For example, “She felt undermined by the implied criticism.” Or, “I don’t wish to imply you’re wrong.” Indication can shade into insinuation: “Are you implying I’m a liar?” Imply derives from the Latin implicare (enfold, involve, be connected with, unite, associate) and retains this sense of connection in e.g. “War implies fighting and death”. This sense of involvement moves closer to the necessary connection of logical implication (see below).

The verb implicate in spoken English is almost invariably used in the sense of incriminating involvement: “A was implicated in B” where for A substitute a politician (some person) and B a scandal (some crime or misdemeanour). This sense may be used in academic writing too, of course: “Some small betrayal was implicated in every attempt to speak one’s mind, recount an event, or faithfully pass on a piece of news” (M. Jackson, preface to The Other Shore: Essays on Writers and Writing, 2012).

In academic texts these verbs tend to be used with different senses, though. Imply is used in the logical sense of entailment: A implies B if given A holds it must be the case that B holds. Implicate is used in the linguistic sense of conveying a message indirectly. For example, in response to the question “Are you going to the pub tonight?” the response “I have to work” indirectly answers “No”. (In pragmatics – the linguistic study of contextual determination of meaning – Grice coined the term implicature for that which is indirectly stated or suggested by an utterance.)

To explain (rooted in the Latin ex– + planus – flattening out, or making plain) is to make clear in the mind, to make intelligible, often by supplying the relevant context and details. To explicate is to explain in detail, to develop at length, interpret by analysis, in order to reveal the full meaning – this with an echo of its etymology “unfold” or “unravel”.

To be complex is “composed of interconnected parts, formed by a combination of simple things or elements” and derives from the Latin com-(with, together) + plectere (weave, braid, entwine). To be complicated, while sharing the sense of “composed of interconnected parts, not simple,” deriving from the Latin com– + plicare (fold, weave), has developed the sense of not being easy to solve, intricate, confused, difficult to explain or understand. Something can be unnecessarily complicated, but not unnecessarily complex.

See if you can’t find an occasion, perhaps while regarding a convolvulus, to use the word contortuplicate – the word has been declared obsolete by OED and deserves resurrection.

A brief history of complicit (Merriam-Webster)
Usage of “implicate” and “imply” (english.stackexchange)
Imply and infer? (Writing Point). As explained by The Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘The distinction between imply and infer is in “What do you imply by that remark?” but, “What am I to infer from that remark?” ‘ See also Cambridge Dictionary online.

* accomplice, applicability, applicable, applicant, application, applicative, applicator, applicatory, apply, centuplicate, complicate, complication, complicity, comply, contortuplicate, counterploy, demi-plié/ grand plié, deplication, deploy, deployment, duplicate, duplication, duplicator, employ, employee, employment, explicable, explicandum, explicans, explicate, explication, explicative, explicator, explicatory, explicature, explicit, exploit, exploitable, exploitation, implicate, implication, implicational, implicature, implicit, imply, inapplicable, induplicate, induplication, inexplicable, multiplicand, multiplication, multiplicative, nonexploitation, nonpliant, plait, pleat, pliable, pliancy, pliant, plié, pliers, ploy, ply, quadruplicate, reapply, reduplication, replica, replicable, replicant, replicate, replication, replicator, reply, subduplicate, triplicate, and doubtless others missed…


Andrew Goodall

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