What does ‘collusion’ really mean?

There was no “collusion,” President Trump has been saying for months, and for months the word “collusion” has been among the most frequent lookups in dictionaries. When Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort was indicted on charges of money laundering, lookups for the word “collusion” spiked more than 800 percent on the Merriam-Webster site, even though the word “collusion” does not appear in the indictment.

(And even though we have advised that indictments are “handed up” to the judge, a number of publications said these were “handed down.” And even though we all know that people are innocent until proven guilty, some publications said Manafort was “indicted for money laundering, when he was merely accused.)

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But back to “collusion.” What does it actually mean?

We can start with the definition in Black’s Law Dictionary, which is edited by the same Bryan A. Garner of Garner’s Modern English Usage fame.

The first definition of “collusion” in the online version of Black’s is, “A deceitful agreement or compact between two or more persons, for the one party to bring an action against the other for some evil purpose, as to defraud a third party of his right.”

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The one in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, used by many news organizations, is not far removed: “a secret agreement for fraudulent or illegal purpose; conspiracy.”

So “collusion” has at its heart something evil, or at least fraudulent or illegal. But, as a New York Times Op-Ed columnist noted, “collusion” has virtually no legal meaning in this context. People can “collude” all they want; if they “conspire,” though, that’s another thing entirely. (“Conspiracy” and its close relatives appear often in the Manafort indictment.)

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The derivation of “collusion,” in fact, is pretty benign. As Merriam-Webster noted, “‘collusion” is from the Latin “colludere, formed from com- (‘with,’ ‘together’) and ludere (‘to play’): the literal meaning of collusion is ‘playing together.’”

That kind of “collusion” sounds like fun: If you “collude” with some friends to throw a surprise birthday party for another friend, people won’t think ill of you. And just thinking of “collusion” doesn’t make it so. It takes at least two to “collude,” and both must be in on it.

“Collusion” became evil at its heart in the late Middle Ages. The Oxford English Dictionary says that “collusion” first appeared in English around the end of the 13th century in a marginal note in Britton’s treatise on the laws of England, which itself was in French. Chaucer was the first to use “collusion” in English, at the end of the 14th century. In his poem Lack of Steadfastness he wrote:

What makes this world of ours so variable
But the pleasure folk take in dissension?
Amongst us now a man is thought unable,
Unless he can, by some vile collusion,
Wrong his neighbour, or wreak his oppression.
What causes this but such wilful baseness,
That all is lost for lack of steadfastness?

Chaucer was also the first to use “conspiracy,” the OED says, in the part of The Monk’s Tale that recounts the story of Julius Caesar, a “conspiracy” if ever there was one. And Chaucer was also the first to use the word “dotard,” the OED says, in the prologue to The Wife of Bath, one of the bawdiest of the Canterbury Tales. (If you recall, Kim Jong-un of North Korea called Trump “the deranged US dotard.”) A “dotard” is “a person whose intellect is impaired by age; a person in his or her dotage or second childhood,” the OED says.

We can’t accuse Chaucer of “collusion,” but maybe we can accuse him of prescience.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.