by Kory Stamper
published May 22, 2018
When we use dictionaries, we think that we are getting a pure view of language, one uncluttered by spin, by misuse, by shifting context. But, lexicographers like me will tell you that language is context. Every meaning in a dictionary is written based on the contextual uses of a word—and context, like people, can get confusing and messy. In these columns, I’ll do a deep dive into a word, giving you some history, some analysis, and some context, so you can navigate our topsy-turvy language the way a lexicographer does.
Ask anyone what the political byword of our moment is and they will likely say collusion. The word has been on everyone’s lips, well before Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate it, and it has even become established (in the negative) as one of Trump’s go-to verbal tics. During a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump was asked by Jennifer Jacobs about his intention to fire Robert Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, and his answer began:
Jennifer, I can say this—that there was no collusion, and that’s been so found, as you know, by the House Intelligence Committee. There’s no collusion. There was no collusion with Russia, other than by the Democrats ….
He goes on for four more paragraphs in the official White House transcript, mentioning both the Democrats and his complete and utter lack of collusion with Russia two more times before answering the question about whether he intended to fire Mueller or Rosenstein.
So, what’s collusion? The word first came into English in the 1300s from the Latin prefix col–, meaning “with,” and the verb lūdere, meaning “to play.” From its written appearances in English, however, it was anything but playful: collusion was a legal term that referred to a secret agreement between people to circumvent the law in order to achieve something by unfair or fraudulent means.
Acts of collusion were so commonly associated with defrauding a person or group of something that collusion and fraud became a set legal phrase as early as the late 1300s. Today, collusion is an important factor in determining whether price-fixing or antitrust laws have been broken, and companies can be prosecuted for collusion under those laws.
Always illegal? It’s complicated
But, collusion hasn’t always been so cut-and-dried. Collusion can also refer to acts or schemes that, while dishonest, aren’t illegal. The word has been used to refer to a secret agreement between two or more persons that will defraud someone else of their rights using legal means: Benjamin Franklin talks about this sort of collusion in a 1760 report where he claims that the state Assembly’s decision to pay the Pennsylvanian governor is directly linked to whether that governor passes laws the Assembly approves of.
Collusion can also refer to secret agreements between parties who are supposed to be adversaries. For instance, is it collusion if NFL team owners and managers agree not to offer Colin Kaepernick a spot on their roster because of his activism? Many think such an agreement is shady—but is it illegal?
This wiggle room has allowed politicians to use the word collusion like a Wiffle ball bat: it looks like it could do significant damage to the object at which it is swung, but its core is hot air. John Adams, in a 1775 letter to the members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, rebutted the Tory loyalist argument that the taxes and duties leveled against the colonies were for the good of the colonies by suggesting it was “collusion and combination between the West India planters and the North-American governors ” to enrich themselves and not the colonies.
Could this collusion have been legally proven? It’s unlikely, but that wasn’t what Adams wanted. He wanted to sway public opinion away from British loyalism and toward American federalism.
Collusion in the Trump era
In that sense, some of the current uses of collusion fall into that political pattern mentioned above. For the last two years, the word has been used to tar an opponent with the specter of criminal wrongdoing. Trump himself is one of the progenitors of the trend. In April, 2016, Ted Cruz and John Kasich announced their plan to deprive Trump of votes during the Republican primary by supporting one another in three primary races. Trump’s campaign responded, “Collusion is often illegal in many other industries and yet these two Washington insiders have had to revert to collusion in order to stay alive.”
And again in October, 2016, he accused the Clinton campaign and the Department of Justice of “collusion and corruption of the highest order” in response to documents purportedly found in the WikiLeaks email dump. (He continues to accuse the Democrats and Hillary Clinton of collusion—with Russia, the FBI, and the DNC, among others.)
During this time, news claiming coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign surfaced, and then-candidate Trump had already given the political zeitgeist a handy word that summarized those allegations: collusion. Trump’s campaign has needed to distance itself from the word, but their attempts to do so have been laughable at best.
No collusion! in the Trump era
Kellyanne Conway attempted to put to rest talk of collusion on Fox News’ “Hannity” last summer with a little ham-fisted Dr.-Seussing—”What’s the conclusion? Collusion? No. We don’t have that yet. I see illusion and delusion. Just so we’re clear. Conclusion? Collusion. No. Illusion. Delusion. Yes.”
Last November, former Trump advisor Steve Bannon tried to shift the lexical goalposts as much as possible, responding to charges of Russian collusion with “We couldn’t. I was there. We couldn’t collude… We had a tough time colluding between the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania and the RNC.” (Alas for Steve: collusion doesn’t mean the same thing as cooperation, which one assumes is what the Trump campaign was trying to do with the RNC. But, perhaps Steve knows more than he’s letting on.)
Nonetheless, Trump can’t help but worry about the word like a dog with a very dirty bone. As of this writing, he has used the word collusion over 50 times on his Twitter account since April 2016, and the frequency of its appearance moves up in a sharp parabolic curve: he’s already used the word over 30 times in 2018. Trump’s social media feed is the Twitter equivalent of negative invocation: don’t think about Russian collusion.
Will the current administration shake charges of collusion? Borrowing a page from Kellyanne’s book, they might do well to follow the advice of an earlier rhymer, John Skelton, who wrote in 1545:
All nobyll men of this take hede
And beleve it as your Crede
Then without Collusyon
Marke well this conclusyon
Thorow such Abusyon [abuse] And by such Illusyon
Unto great Confucyon
A nobyll man may fall …
Kory Stamper was a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster for almost twenty years, and she is the author of the best-selling Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles the twists and turns of dictionary making and the English language. She is also the co-host of Fiat Lex, a podcast about dictionaries, and she is working on a book about defining color. She lives in New Jersey with her dog and far too many dictionaries.