What is the difference between "illicit" and "illegal"? Are they just synonymous? Used in different contexts?
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This is backed up by things like illicit sexual relationship. It's not wrong to have a sexual relationship normally, but it could be "wrong" if you are married, or not yet married, etc. illicit trade is another such example. It's not wrong to trade, unless you do it in the wrong way.
Imo, I will choose illicit over illegal when the fact that an act that is being carried out in secret is key to my message. I think that comes across stronger than merely calling the action illegal, even tho being illegal is likely to relegate the act "to the shadows." If I don't want to waste the readers' time making that conclusion, it's likely because I want to build upon that - and delve into the consequence of secrecy.
Maybe the best ways to distinguish the two are their etymologies and their uses, which are related.
Illicit < Lat., licere, to permit.
Illegal < Lat., lex, a statutory law (as opposed to natural law, or what have you).
As noted above, illicit is a broader term that often includes a moral or ethical connotation, whereas illegal does not. It might be illegal to open the coolant reservoir on your air conditioner, but nobody thinks it is immoral. Likewise, adultery is often legal - or if illegal, not considered a criminal offense but only a matter of family law should a divorce be sought - but nobody really thinks of adultery as anything but an illicit affair.
The terms are used, relative to each other, differently in different contexts.
In canon law of the Catholic Church, the two words are synonymous, and are opposed to the term invalid. Validity, in such a distinction, has to do with reality, whereas liceity has only to do with permission and regulation. For instance, a layperson may not preach at Mass. Ask any of my friends and they will tell you how preachy I can be. The Church's law does not deny my ability (validity, you might say - what I can do) to preach - it only denies me permission (liceity or legality - what I may) to do so.
In purely legal matters, though, liceity/validity are often the same thing. If a contract is entered into illicitly, it is generally not going to be valid - for instance, most contracts entered into with minors do not have legal validity.
Lastly, in civic affairs, we very often understand there to be a gap in the law when that which is considered to be illicit (certain shady handling of money by politicians, for instance) is still legal.
An illegal action only breaks the law. An illicit action breaks ethical or moral standards (and probably the law as well).
As you see here, illicit can be used to mean illegal, but its second meaning makes all the difference. So if you want to preserve our precious English nuances, choose wisely!
Illicit is forbidden by law, rules, custom or other set of principles. Illegal is forbidden only by law.
protected by tchrist Jul 6 '14 at 19:47
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