Illicit reactionary responses

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This morning on the train ride in from Swarthmore, I stumbled upon this quotation in today's Metro:  "Philadelphia Magazine published the article to 'illicit reactionary responses,' he said. 'We must be more proactive.'”

The "he" is national race relations specialist Chad Dion Lassiter, and he is referring to a piece in the March issue of Philadelphia Magazine titled, “Being white in Philly,” by Robert Huber.

Upon first reading, I thought that the mistake might merely have been due to sloppy writing and editing.  Upon rereading, I began to wonder whether this parapraxis was the result of some weird Freudian slip.

This evening, after teaching my classes and having eaten dinner, I checked the web to see if anyone else had ever made the same error, and was astonished to find that it had happened quite a few other times, e.g.:

"Where are they now?"

"180 days of experience is paying off"

"Question to Atheists about Theists"

"Animu and Mango"

I'm even more troubled than I was before doing my search, since I now realize that Lassiter's lapse was not the unique event that I had hoped (or rather suspected) it was, but that some strange constellation of impulses had caused it to occur in the minds of other individuals.  What might be the trigger that sets off such a bizarre locution?


  1. Roy Sablosky said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    Are you looking for a hypothesis other than "People don't know how to spell 'elicit'"?

  2. Brian said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

    And, is "slopping writing and editing" an intentional self-referential phrase?

    [VHM: fixed]

  3. ===Dan said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

    I don't see any evidence for deep significance. "Illicit reactionary responses" (in quotes) has 37 hits in Google. Spelling it "elicit" gets 28 more. But it's a common spelling error in general: "trying to illicit" seems to have about half a million hits. "Trying to elicit" gets 829,000.

  4. Matt said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 8:40 pm

    Are you looking for a hypothesis other than "People don't know how to spell 'elicit'"?

    We can probably do better than that:

    – "Illicit" and "elicit" have identical pronunciations in some English dialects (including mine!)
    – "Elicit" is a rarer word than "illicit" (subjective impression)
    – Therefore a person could very well grow up thinking that "elicit" and "illicit" are spelled the same, simply by never encountering the former in print (or not often enough to notice/remember the difference, etc.)

    Something similar appears to be going on with "elusive" and "illusive", although in that case the meanings are similar enough that it could probably best be described as an ongoing semantic merge as well as an orthographic one.

    As for "reactionary", if you don't know the technical definition of "reactionary", reanalyzing it to mean simply "being or having the characteristics of a (vigorous/unjustified/etc.) reaction" or something like that seems quite understandable. Even if you do know the technical definition of "reactionary", you might end up using the word in this sense as a sort of slip of the tongue after searching around for a word to describe the kind of response you are envisioning.

    I'm not sure that Lassiter himself did use the word mistakenly, mind you — you could parse his words as an argument that the magazine published the article as a cynical attempt to stir up controversy, which would partly be driven by agreement from people who could indeed be described as reactionaries. (The fact that he follows this up with "we must be more proactive" does undermine this reading a bit, implying as it does a reactive/proactive polarity, but obviously "reactionary" is related to "reactive" so I don't think the issue is that clear-cut.)

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

    Another vote for "common spelling error." I see in my students' writing all the time.

  6. Nat said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

    Why think it's Lassiter's spelling at all? On a quick look at the article, it looks like it's quoting thinks Lassiter has spoken, perhaps in a phone interview.

  7. Robert said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

    Is it just the author? He also quotes the mayor as saying it's "disgusting and stainful", did he say 'stainful' or 'disdainful'?

  8. Robert said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 10:23 pm

    actually it's quoted from a speech
    the sound quality on my phone makes it hard to tell but I lean towards a soft (di)sdainful.

  9. Anarcissie said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

    Occasionally when writing fast I find I have written a more common phonetic equivalent of a word than the word I actually wanted. Apparently the spelling was selected after the phonetic representation of the word had been selected, although I am not conscious most of the time of hearing what I write mentally as I'm writing. Evidently the lower layer doesn't pay close attention to the semantic content of the word sequence. I don't know if others have this experience, but it seems likely.

  10. siweiluozi said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

    I thought this was going to be another post about Chinese, in which language I could easily imagine reading the phrase "illicit reactionary responses."

  11. Chris C. said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

    Illucid responsory reactions?

  12. mollymooly said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

    Assuming the intended sense of "to illicit reactionary responses" is "to provoke (strong) reactions", I count three questionables…

    1. "illicit" for "elicit" misspelling (assuming one pronounces "elicit" with the vowel of KIT rather than FLEECE)
    2. "reactionary" in sense "as a reaction" rather than "severely conservative"
    3. tautology of "reactionary response"

    …none of which seems particularly interesting

  13. Yuval said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 1:11 am

    At first I was shocked that Geoff Pullum opened comments on one of his posts. Only the [VHM] addendum to a comment made me look at the author box again.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 6:03 am


    "…none of which seems particularly interesting"

    Well, to me at least two of those three are quite interesting.

    Other aspects of issues raised by the post are highly problematic, but remain unaddressed by any commenter.

  15. Rick said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 6:34 am

    From the context of the examples given, it would appear that, in the minds of the writers, any "reactionary response" would indeed be illicit.

  16. MsH said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    My interpretation of the speaker's meaning is: "We published this article in order to make some subset of our readers annoyed enough so we got lots of responses and publicity. It's my job to seek attention for my publication." I think it's interesting that he thinks those words mean that, and also interesting that I understand him in that sense. It's not like "please note glass panel in the absence of manifestations", which really puzzled me until I read the comments. "Reactionary responses" is particularly interesting: I did interpret "reactionary" as "right-wing" but on reflection I think he only means "prompt angry reactions expressed in the form of responses (such as comments)".

  17. Robert said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    "The speaker" was not involved with the publication of the original article but was commenting on it.
    My guess is the error substituting 'illicit' for 'elicit' belongs to the journalist not the speaker and that the use of 'reactionary' was intended in the sense of 'politically backward'. Having read several of the author's other articles I find his writing skills pretty unimpressive and such an error no small wonder.

  18. KevinM said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 9:04 am

    "Philadelphia Magazine published the article to 'illicit reactionary responses,' …" I didn't initially read this as a typo or spelling error at all. I read "illicit reactionary responses" as describing the reaction to the publication – as you might say that something was "published to universal acclaim." Awkward and odd, but perhaps not wrong. Anyway, on a second reading, I agree that it's probably just a mistake.

  19. Brett said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    My initial reading was the same as that of KevinM. However, I very quickly concluded that must be wrong. "Illicit reactionary responses" would be things like militia members roughing up reporters or conservative hackers sabotaging the publication's computers. Probably less than a second of consideration told me that nobody would really describe such things with those words, so it had to be a mistake.

  20. marie-lucie said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 9:54 am

    mollymooly: "illicit" for "elicit" misspelling (assuming one pronounces "elicit" with the vowel of KIT rather than FLEECE)

    As a linguist, I have had many opportunities to hear and use the word "elicit", more often than "illicit". Perhaps "elicit" is pronounced differently in different regions of the globe? Of course I could be wrong, but I don't think I have ever heard the first vowel of this word pronounced like the vowel of FLEECE, at least among North American linguists.

  21. julie lee said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 9:56 am

    Since the phrase "illicit reactionary response" has also appeared a number of times elsewhere on Google, I looked up the word "reactionary" in Urban Dictionary. Definition #1 is: "Having old political and social views. Being ultraconservative. Reactionaries like to reminisce about the good old days when slavery, sexism, racism and cruel/unusal punishment were prominent.
    Reactionaries biggest fear:
    When straight white men no longer rule the U.S."

    I don't think this is the usual meaning of "reactionary", certainly not in the OED, or Webster's.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 9:58 am

    I tend to agree that "illicit" is a transcription error (not subsequent caught in the copy-editing), but I found "reactionary" a bit odd in tone, just because it has to my ear (in its pejorative political sense) a rather archaic Cold-War/Popular-Front sort of ring unless used ironically/jocularly (with irony/jocularity seeming unlikely in this context). But I see that Mr. Lassiter is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice, so maybe he's a member of the sort of insular/backwater speech community that dialectologists love because they can find archaisms still in everyday use.

  23. Brett said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    @julie lee: To the extent that anything from Urban Dictionary is meant to be taken seriously, that seems like a pretty standard definition of "reactionary."

  24. Linda said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    @ julie lee: I checked the OED for you.

    As an adjective, 1. Inclined or favourable to reaction; opposing political or social progress or reform; (hence, loosely) extremely conservative. dating back to 1815.

    As a noun, A person inclined or favourable to reaction, esp. one who is against radical political or social reform, and in favour of a reversion to a former state of affairs. dating back to 1799, but at that date it was still a French loan.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    @Victor: Well, to me at least two of those three are quite interesting.

    You're not giving us a lot to go on. From where I sit, it's a spelling error and a fairly common one. Is every spelling error interesting? Is there something especially interesting about this one? You haven't really given us a reason to think so.

    Other aspects of issues raised by the post are highly problematic, but remain unaddressed by any commenter.

    Such as? I feel like we're playing a guessing game here.

  26. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 10:21 am

    "As for 'reactionary', if you don't know the technical definition of 'reactionary', reanalyzing it to mean simply 'being or having the characteristics of a (vigorous/unjustified/etc.) reaction' or something like that seems quite understandable."

    This was true for me for many years and even though I was well aware that it had strong connotations of conservatism. I wasn't aware of its actual etymology and inferred the meaning you describe, except including that it connects to conservatism. This made sense to me, because people tend to "react" negatively to "change".

    The etymology provides insight, however, to its "technical" definition and argues that this reanalysis is an error in that context. But, you know, we're all descriptivists here, right? I mean, if it's escaped into general usage as a synonym of reactive, then that has some validity.

    And I think a reason that it may well be in general usage in this form is because it's useful to have a word with negative connotations describing something that's mostly a strong negative response to something else, regardless of the politics.


    …but I found 'reactionary' a bit odd in tone, just because it has to my ear (in its pejorative political sense) a rather archaic Cold-War/Popular-Front sort of ring unless used ironically/jocularly (with irony/jocularity seeming unlikely in this context).

    I know a lot of people who use the word this way without irony and I encounter it frequently.

  27. Sister_Ray said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    My questions (apart from the spelling issue):
    Was it just a polite way of saying this article is trollbait/linkbait? And what does he mean by "We must be more proactive."? Is proactive the opposite of reactionary? But any response is reactionary if the word is not meant in the 'opposed to change' sense. Is he saying that you can react in a proactive and in a reactionary way? Is reactionary = commenting on an online article and linking to it and is proactive = writing your own article or do something else and not linking to offending article? Or does proactive stand in here for liberal?

  28. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    "But any response is reactionary if the word is not meant in the 'opposed to change' sense."

    I think it's a matter of nuance.

    Yes, any response would be "reactionary" in your assumed broad simply non-revanchist sense; but I think its actual intended meaning is to emphasize its reflexive nature above everything else. So a deliberate, thoughtful progressive response wouldn't be "reactionary" in this sense, but an instinctive, reflexive progressive response would.

    I can't really think of an alternative that manages this connotation. And while etymologically, technically, and for many speakers reactionary doesn't have this connotation, either, what has happened is that the "technically correct" usage of reactionary describes something which besides being revanchist is also very often reflexive and instinctive.

    So this overlap, and a reanalysis of the term from its roots, has caused many speakers such as myself to infer that the reflexive part is primary and thus to use it this way. I don't, anymore, but I find I'm unhappy to no longer have this term available to me to principally connote reflexive opposition in a political context without regard to the political ideology.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

    @Rod Johnson

    Sister_Ray has seen some of the problems to which I was alluding.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

    Presumably the two senses have been somewhat mixed together since the beginning, both since a) "reactionary" (at least in English?)* has largely been a term used pejoratively by lefties (rather than as unironic self-identification by righties), with at least some such lefties sometimes prone to dismiss their opponents' substantive political beliefs by treating them as essentially psychological phenomena ("fear of change" etc. — no doubt there are similarly unproductive attitudes in the other direction as well); and b) in the original context one of the key philosophical divisions between Revolution/Reaction beginning circa 1789 was how sanguine you were about the likely outcome of the project of radically transforming society along lines dictated by Enlightenment rationalism. If you were inclined to be more skeptical about rationalism, you would thus be more likely to find reflexive/instinctive/reactive judgments about political/social issues to be a freestanding source of value and wisdom, rather than something to be deprecated, for reasons elaborated at length by the various anti-Jacobin writers of the age from Burke to de Maistre to a whole bunch of Germans (who even I think had a word I'm now forgetting meaning something like "Counter-Enlightenment").

    *I have heard that Metternich (if I'm remembering the anecdote correctly) was wont to offer toasts to "Reaktion!" at dinner parties etc., but a) I have no idea of the actual historicity of that anecdote; and b) I have no idea whether Metternich's use of the word to identify his own side in the politics of the day would or wouldn't have been taken as ironic/jocular in context.

  31. John Swindle said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

    @marie-lucie and @mollymooly: What I haven't heard is "elicit" with the vowel in "kit." Is there a geographic area for that? I usually pronounce "illicit" and "elicit" identically, and I'm no expert, but I think my vowel's more like the one in merged pin/pen.

  32. Ellen K. said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

    Thanks you, Keith M Ellis. Your second comment above I think explains to me a puzzling use of reactionary I encountered, where someone who's not particularly conservative (not enough to fit "reactionary") used it of himself.

  33. Guy said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 9:13 pm

    Anarcissie, I do the same, and usually get a vague feeling of shame when it happens. I imagine someone's done a thesis on it.

  34. rvman said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    I suspect "illicit reactionary response" may have been a mistranscription of "elicit a reaction or response".

  35. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 1:21 am

    "Anarcissie, I do the same, and usually get a vague feeling of shame when it happens. I imagine someone's done a thesis on it."

    I have a chronic illness, for which I have for different periods taken relatively high dosages of opioids. One thing I noticed was that while I was pretty much as articulate and clear-headed as usual, I nevertheless was noticeable more likely to make exactly these phonetic spelling substitutions.

    It's very irksome and, like you, I also get a vague feeling of shame for the mistake. It's interesting how even when someone like myself has the overt intellectual stance of not being judgmental about the writing of others in this and related respects, the shame was baked-in long ago and is not to be (totally) dislodged. I try very hard to not notice or be judgmental of typos and related, but I tend to judge myself by a much more strict standard.

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