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I read the definitions of these two terms rendered by various dictionaries and concluded that

  • elucidate denotes 'to make perspicuous or intelligible (especially by explanation)'; whereas,
  • explicate denotes 'to elaborate on a theory in a manner that makes it more perspicuous or intelligible'.

I can't discern a distinction other than the possibility that explicate is the more appropriate word when the object is a theory (e.g. one might explicate a theory but elucidate a process).

Is that the distinction between these two words? If not, then what distinguishes these two words from each other?

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    I always get explicate confused with exculpate, the opposite of implicate. I am now wondering how, if at all, I would ever use explicate. Surely explain does the job just as well.
    – WS2
    Aug 23, 2014 at 20:07
  • Just came here (3 years 3 months and 16 days later - thanks Alexa) to say bibs answer was masterful. I understood there was an overlap but context and connotation explains why both words exist. It’s a good example of how nuances in language are a subtle form of art Dec 9, 2017 at 19:49

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The Oxford Dictionary Online defines elucidate as

Make (something) clear; explain: work such as theirs will help to elucidate this matter

The etymology is reported as

mid 16th century: from late Latin elucidat- 'made clear', from the verb elucidare, from e- (variant of ex-) 'out' + lucidus 'lucid'.

Tracing lucid back, we get

late 16th century (sense 2): from Latin lucidus (perhaps via French lucide or Italian lucido), from lucere 'shine', from lux, luc- 'light'.

Basically, it means shed light on.

ODO defines explicate as

Analyze and develop (an idea or principle) in detail: attempting to explicate the relationship between crime and economic forces

The origin is reported to be

mid 16th century: from Latin explicat- 'unfolded', from the verb explicare, from ex- 'out' + plicare 'to fold'.

The sense it to unpack or unfold a complex concept or relationship.

While there is a great deal of overlap, and either might fit many circumstances, there are subtle connotatve differences. Elucidate might be a better choice when some information, perhaps only a single fact, reveals the nature of the situation. Explicate would seem better suited when a process of unraveling a complex situation is necessary to get to the truth or to understanding.

Were I to tell someone I hate my brother, I could elucidate by saying He beat me up every day when I was a boy.

Or I could explicate by tracing the 70 year history of complex business transactions, contested inheritances, joint ventures, competitive projects, political campaigns and the battle over a betrothed that slowly turned sibling camaraderie to contempt.

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"Elucidate" and "explicate" are both million-dollar words to describe the action of explaining something. To my ear, the former, with its "lucid" root, emphasizes clarity of result. The latter ("explain") emphasizes the process of getting there.

Here's a trick I often use when I want a deeper sense of how words have been used in literature: Go to https://www.english-corpora.org/coca/ and enter your word. The database of 450 million words will likely return enough examples to give a good sense of how literate folks have used it.

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