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I am writing an essay on Political Correctness currently, and striving to find a word fitting this description. I want to say that something wasn't nice, but it wasn't breaking the law. It wasn't legally wrong. But, in the sight of people around me, it was illegal, disallowed, inappropriate, taboo. But after then, I proceeded to say something else that was actually "legally illegal". What is a term that would replace the words in the quotation marks?

Here is an example:

It's recess, and there's joking everywhere. Then someone cracks a joke at someone else. Everyone laughs. The person whom the joke is against laughs as well, then shouts,"You Jew!" What he said was actually prosecutable. It was "legally illegal" I need a term/adjective fitting this description

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closed as not a real question by waiwai933 Nov 14 '11 at 6:28

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

illegal by definition implies the "legally" – JoseK May 26 '11 at 6:33
If it's a criminal act, then "crime" would be appropriate.. – falstro May 26 '11 at 8:12
I think you should explain context even further, see my answer. Also, are you looking for a noun or adjective will suffice? – Unreason May 26 '11 at 10:43
I hope that makes more sense. – Thursagen May 26 '11 at 10:56
@Rhodri I think he means that it is actually or legitimately illegal, punishable by law, as opposed to immoral or unethical. – Kit Z. Fox May 26 '11 at 19:18

14 Answers 14

Let me first admit that I don't fully understand your context, however I think it is clear that the definition

illegal adj.

not allowed by the law

limits the use of the word, in direct sense, only to something that is not allowed by the law.

The only flexibility is that the law is not necessarily the criminal law, as law can be divided into many subjects and areas (illegal move in chess, illegal character in syntax of some computer language, etc..).

If you are trying to portray the difference between something that is illegal by one law and legal in another you should explicitly specify which laws you are talking about.

Also, let me comment that

  1. though "illegal" can be used in many situations that do not seem formal you will, as a rule, find a set of formal rules (usually even written) that make things "illegal" and I would not use the word for anything that is simply inappropriate or even taboo,

  2. the term "legally illegal" is too ambiguous because it introduces a doubt for which rules and laws it is illegal (alternatives: "punishable by law" assumes rules enforced through institutions, but maybe you need to be more explicit, depending on your context; also a crime assumes breaking the criminal law)

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My advice would be to say that something is against the law, or breaking the law. These phrases appear to be quite unambiguous.

The social sciences, philosophy, linguistics, and many others often use illegal to mean impossible according to some rule or consensus, which is a metaphor, because the literal sense of breaking the law is not involved. (Somehow I can't think of many metaphorical laws that actually use the word law; the laws of nature and those of God spring to mind, but oddly something cannot be said to be illegal in those realms.)

This metaphor is old and well established: it is very common in games, where illegal moves may be made, though no laws are involved. The same applies to an illegal operation in computing.

The word legitimate involves similar complications, since it often means merely justified, allowed, as in a legitimate conclusion, i.e. a conclusion that follows from the arguments given.

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If you commit an act which is currently against the law, it is simply illegal - there is no distinction regarding when the law was passed. (You might say "newly illegal", but it has no legal force or meaning.)

If you commit an act today, and tomorrow a law is passed against what you did today, that law would be called an ex post facto law. The legal systems of most countries do not allow prosecution under ex post facto laws; in fact the US Constitution specifically states in Article I, section 9:

No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.

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Sorry, I'll restate the question. – Thursagen May 26 '11 at 6:43

A few leads:

  • improper
  • spurious
  • specious
  • or simply wrong
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"Illegal" has no meaning other than "against the law". Now, the context may determine which "law" is involved - you may make an illegal move in chess (violating the laws of chess), or your program may ask the computer to perform an illegal operation, and in neither case should you expect the boys in blue to come and arrest you (although in the second case you should expect a Blue Screen of Death.)

So I don't think you need to find a new word for "illegal" - you just need to tighten your definition of it. A thing cannot be "illegal in the sight of other men"; it can only be legal or illegal.

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I don't think chess or computers can be said to have laws—rules, rather. That is why I consider an illegal move or an illegal operation metaphors. – Cerberus May 26 '11 at 13:58

The word I think you are looking for is offensive derived from term offence

offence US, offense [əˈfɛns] n
1. a violation or breach of a law, custom, rule, etc.
2 a. any public wrong or crime
2 b. a nonindictable crime punishable on summary conviction
3. annoyance, displeasure, or resentment
4. give offence (to) to cause annoyance or displeasure (to)
5. take offence to feel injured, humiliated, or offended
6. a source of annoyance, displeasure, or anger

offensive adj
1. Disagreeable to the senses: an offensive odor.
2. Causing anger, displeasure, resentment, or affront: an offensive gesture.

So someone committed an offensive act in the eyes of the bystanders, then proceeded to commit an offence punishable by law.

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The reason I used "illegal" with the people around me, is because then, the "illegal" was not actually legal, "legal" as in no legal action could be taken. – Thursagen May 26 '11 at 8:06
@Third: Please see update – mplungjan May 26 '11 at 8:09

"Illegal" means an act that breaks the law. Are you looking for the distinction between "illegal" and "offensive", or "an illegal act" and an "offense" or a "transgression"? The situation you describe seems to be a social transgression -- you said something that other people took offense at, but there was nothing illegal about what you said.

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This is the right answer. – Marcin May 26 '11 at 16:01

There are two kinds of things that you and the other people are discussing:

illegal - 'legally illegal' is redundant; 'illegal' already takes into account that there is an explicit code to follow

immoral - an act that is not wanted; their might be an implicit code against it but there is no. These are things that possibly should be made explicit (made into a law) but are not necessarily so.

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I'm not sure I understand what you are looking for, but you are talking about hate speech, which is a crime in the UK. It is a prosecutable, legitimately illegal, for real, actual crime. I don't know if you are looking for the specific term that describes this transgression, or if you are looking for a generic term that means "illegal."

What the hate speaker said was criminal. He engaged in hate speech when he invoked ethnicity as an epithet.

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would "nefarious" be handy to you?

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This answer would be improved by saying why this word would be a good fit. – Hugo Nov 13 '11 at 10:01
@Hugo : I don't know why ( or at least I don't know how to put it in words), but it seemed something that might be related. – Arjang Nov 13 '11 at 10:22

Offens(iv)e or transgression is what you are looking for, I think.

If you want a word that covers everything that is both illegal, and frowned on, but not illegal, you could simply use "forbidden".

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An approximate meaning might be socially acceptable or socially unacceptable. Something can be legal without being condoned by society (or illegal and accepted by society).

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up vote 0 down vote accepted

Is the term you are looking for:

Officially illegal?

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Aha! On the head of the nail! wish I had a +1 to give you! – Thursagen Jun 4 '11 at 13:23
No. Something cannot be unofficially illegal. – Marcin Jun 4 '11 at 13:35
I think it can, cos the OP wrote about how it was illegal to the people, but not to the law, so it wasn't "officially, legally, illegal". What do you think? – Thursagen Jun 6 '11 at 1:33

I think this is more properly a style question: how to make the issue clear to the reader of your essay. As such, it would be much simpler to restrict your usage of the word illegal to the latter example, and to use the other words, such as socially unacceptable, offensive, insulting, impolitic, etc to the first example. But what I think you should also be aware of is that, in my experience, Political Correctness is not a compliment for socially decent behavior, but rather it's a derogatory word used to describe behavior that is only "right" because it will look "right", not because it's morally good.

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