Indicting Co-Conspirator

25 January 2011

As I was falling asleep yester-day morning, I was thinking with annoyance about the term co-conspirator.

The term conspire comes from the Latin conspirare, which literally means breathe together, and breaks into con- from the Latin preposition com meaning with, and spirare, meaning breathe. So far, so good.

Things run off the rails with that co- in co-conspirator. The prefix co- is really just a reduced form of com-.[1] Part of the reason that the reduced form is used here is that the original morphology of com- was simply forgot, and whoever coined the term reached for analogy with some term formed by a chain of analogies ultimately leading back to a word that used the reduced form as per rules of Latin morphology (such as co-author). Had that person remembered the morphology — had he or she recognized co- as com- — he or she might have seen the deeper problem.

Prefix conspirator with com-, and one gets … uhm, conconspirator; crudely parsed, that's with-with-breather. That result should raise a warning flag. One should ask whether there is any difference between a conspirator and a co-conspirator. It isn't possible to be in a conspiracy of one (though the claim might be made jocularly).

I think that the term co-conspirator first came to general use during the Watergate Era. Certainly, I don't find the terms co-conspire, co-conspiracy, or co-conspirator in the American Heritage Dictionary of 1975. I'd guess that the term co-conspirator was probably coined by a lawyer, and that it lived for some time in the environment of the court-house, before escaping into the wild exactly as a result of President Richard Milhous Nixon's being called an unindicted co-conspirator in court documents.

I'm reluctant to condemn people who, raised in the years since, use co-conspirator without irony. Even if they recognize the absurdity, it is difficult for people to distinguish those absurdities that one must accept from those from which we might more easily be freed. And I suspect that, in many cases, the folk who use this co- are really trying to capture the sense of fellow; though that sense would be better captured with, well, fellow, at least the co- isn't then wholly redundant. But, really, we ought to make an effort to drive this thing from our language.

[1] In Latin, normally, the reduced form co- is used when followed immediately by a vowel, by h, or by gn. The basic form com- is used when immediately followed by b, by m, and by p, but it is assimilated into col- before l and into cor- before r, and it becomes con- in front of the remaining consonants. Things get less consistent when the construction was not actually made in Latin. Meanwhile, in Latin itself the earlier preposition com evolved into cum.

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7 Responses to Indicting Co-Conspirator

  • 28bytes says:

    "A person with whom you conspire with."


    Concise, cogent, and correct! Well played, sir!

    Your logic is inescapable as your knowledge is evident! I've said it before and will repeat, you are a smart fellow! Your post is both entertaining and enlightening.

    My personal pet-peeve concerning declining intelligence linked to language are phrases like "My bad" , or even "You've been pwned!". Each time I hear or see phraseology such as this I cringe, as one can almost feel the flames of Hell tickling our feet as we steadily march blindly and willingly towards ignorance and destruction.

    As I was typing these words I was also struck by the fact that my nom de plume online is an almagam of the words acolyte and apocalypse, which forms the new 'word' APOCOLYTE. When I first invented this word, I had never heard it or seen it before, and thought it was quite unique. Since that time several years ago, I have seen smatterings of the word used here and there on the web, as it apparently is being used in some form of game, though I came up with my version independant of anyone else about 20 years ago.
    The definition of 'my' version is as follows: (please excuse my paraphrasing and the crudeness of my knowledge compared to yours!) The word 'acolyte' simply means 'one who follows', or 'follower'. The word 'apocalypse' (which meaning has been distorted and misused in various media to mean destruction or cataclysm) means 'a revelation; a revealing of some hidden truth'. Therefore MY VERSION of the word 'apocolyte' simply put means 'one who follows after the hidden truth'; or 'one who seeks knowledge of G_d that is hidden from man'.

    I just thought I would share that as it was slightly on topic, and I wondered what your thoughts relating to this might be.

    • Daniel says:

      You're basically forming apocolyte as a portmanteu word. There's of course lots of precedence for portmanteu words, but they work best when they don't look like words formed in some other way.

      The word apocolyte might be formed from the original prefix apo-, from the Greek απο- meaning away, with colyte, ultimately from κέλευθος meaning path or road. This could be taken to refer to someone off the main path, but more probably would be taken to mean someone off the true path; and there's no necessary suggestion that one is on any path at all in this deviation.

      In apocalypse, the calypse ultimately derives from καλυπσ- referring to covering, so the apo-calypse is a taking away of the cover.

      The prefix a- in acolyte refers to togetherness. (But homonymic a- can indicate negation. One sometimes just has to look at how the word is used to see with which a- one is dealing, and I expect that there has been some punning.)

      The principal Greek word-stem for concealed, hidden, or secret is κρυπτ-ο-; transliterated according to Latin conventions, that becomes crypt-o-. Someone who is on a secret path or on a path to secrets might be called acryptocolyte. A secret acolyte might be called cryptacolyte.

      • THE APOCOLYTE says:

        That is an amazing analysis and exposition! My goodness! Ha!

        Just visiting your site makes me feel more intelligent, and then reading what you write causes me to feel the extreme opposite! Thank you for the incredible exegesis of APOCOLYTE...needless to say that roughly 75% of what you wrote I had not heard before, while roughly 25% went completely over my head! (not really, but almost)
        Had to chuckle at some of the variations such as acryptocolyte! I might just change my name to Apococryptocolyte!...which might mean 'one whose name is hidden from himself'!

        Thanks! Astounding!

  • alanborky says:

    It used to drive me mad when I heard people use the Homer Simpson-ism "nu-cu-le'r", (as opposed to nuclear).

    Then my brother pointed out how, whenever I read about Frenchies trying to keep French pure, (i.e., free of English), I always pointed out if the Ancient Roman nerds of their day'd succeeded in keeping Latin free of 'Barbarian', then Spanish, Romanian, Italian, etc., maybe even German'n'English, but certainly French'd never've developed.

    I actually like French to the degree I incorporate 'le liaison' into my writing, reflecting, as it does, the variability of my actual speech and therefore facilitating my mental flow.

    Concerning your original point, though, I think I spotted a 'loophole' in your argument, as in the US government claiming Muslims conspired in bringing about 9/11 but so-called 9/11 conspiracy-'deniers' claiming it was members of the government itself who conspired bringing it about.

    The Muslims'd clearly be co-conspirators only in their own particular conspiracy, and the government members co-conspirators only in theirs.

    (A barbarian who remembers English black, and French blanc were once the same word).

    • Daniel says:

      I'm all for changing language when it actually accomplishes some good, and I don't fret about change that does no harm. There's a very great difference between trying to keep a language sensible (so that, for example, /julər/ doesn't come from -lear) and keeping it free of foreign influence (which is what l'Académie française and the French state attempt).

      (Tangent: The Democrats used to mock GW Bush for saying /ˈnukjuˌlər/, wilfully forgetting that Jimmy Carter used to say /ˌnukjuˈliər/. Each man was a dreadful President, and perhaps their respective inabilities to pronounce nuclear should have been sufficient warning.)

      What you suggest as a loop-hole doesn't work as such. Whether we say co-conspirator or just conspirator, we are forced to use other words to make it plain that more than one alleged conspiracy is being discussed.

      The Muslims'd clearly be conspirators only in their own particular conspiracy, and the government members conspirators only in theirs.

      works every bit as well as your original sentence.

  • Jeff T says:

    I got into this conversation with my friends yesterday. They both think that co-conspirator is a proper term. I cant think of any usage where it's necessary to use the prefix of " co "...If someone was to say, John was one of the conspirators ", that would be correct. As opposed to " John was one of the co-conspirators " which would be redundant...If anyone can think of an example where " co " has to be used, please make a post....Thanks

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