Word frequency variation: elicit vs. illicit

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In the comments on yesterday's post about a slip of the fingers or brain ("Elicit → illicit"), there was some discussion about which of the two words is more common.

Obviously, the answer to such questions depends on where you look.

So I looked in a bunch of places. Overall, illicit tends to be more common than elicit — but the relative frequency varies widely, and sometimes it's the other way round.

The english-corpora.org website lets us get word counts from 16 relevant corpora:

Source elicit illicit (illicit/elicit)
NOW 24261 123370 5.09
iWeb 24185 41506 1.72
GloWbE 3614 7888 2.18
Wikipedia 2073 4971 1.38
Hansard 4342 4224 0.97
COCA 2697 4199 1.56
TV 158 446 2.82
Movies 61 133 2.18
SCOTUS 427 866 2.03
TIME 152 526 3.46
SOAP 20 62 3.10
BNC 240 256 1.07
CORE 130 238 1.83
Strathy 177 146 0.82
Google Books
596697 407460 0.68
Google Books
130941 116216 0.89

Checking the National Library of Medicine's PubMed database gives us article counts, not word counts, but FWIW:

elicit   256156
illicit   27563
illicit/elicit = 0.11

Similarly, Court Listener gives us (U.S. court) opinion counts, not word counts — but I was surprised to see illicit lose again:

elicit  119986
illicit  27025
illicit/elicit = 0.23

The NYT archive also gives article counts:

elicit  26903
illicit 24051
illicit/elicit = 0.89

The Atlantic Magazine archive, again with article counts:

elicit  474
illicit 581
illicit/elicit = 1.23

There are lots of other places to look, of course, but that should be enough to make the point.


  1. Alexander Pruss said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 10:03 am

    Before this post, I would have sworn that "elicit" and "illicit" start with a different vowel sound. I rarely if ever use "elicit" in speech, but I think that if I had been asked to pronounce it, I would have given it the same starting vowel as in "egret". I just checked and to my surprise the standard online dictionaries all give the same pronunciation of "elicit" and "illicit". But, after getting past a paywall, Oxford's dictionary of Canadian English does give the egret-like pronunciation as an alternative, which may explain my conviction. I'm a Canadian ex-pat in Texas.

    By the way, does anyone pronounce "elicit" starting the same as "egg"?

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 12:20 pm

    « By the way, does anyone pronounce "elicit" starting the same as "egg" ? ». Yes, I do. The LPD gives (for "elicit") /i ˈlɪs |ɪt / and (for "illicit") /ɪ ˈlɪs ɪt/.

  3. David Morris said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 7:17 am

    Because illicit and elicit are different word classes, does the comparative frequency really tell us anything, anyway, compared with, say, illicit and illegal?

  4. Charles in Toronto said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 9:32 am

    In the end, a lot of unstressed vowels in English can reduce to a schwa but have their own identity when you are pronouncing them with more intentional clarity. So elicit & illicit will sound the same when you schwa them, but different when you articulate them. If you learn the meanings from everyday conversation, the confusion would be understandable.

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