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shameless pleading

Conspiracy

 Pigeons plot in secrecy.

Dear Word Detective: I read an article the other day on a conspiracy theory where the author argued that, in the particular situation he was writing about, it wasn’t a conspiracy because “by definition conspiracies are hidden” and this particular situation was not hidden or secret because it had been published in various places. For some reason this struck me as incorrect, so I got out the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) and looked up the word “conspiracy.” I couldn’t find any “hidden” or “secret” component in either of the dictionaries’ definitions of the word and so felt that I was right. However, I subsequently found that the word “conspire” does have “secret” in the definition (in AHD and OED) and so I thought maybe I could be wrong even though it is a different word. Does a conspiracy (by definition) have to be hidden or secret? — Christopher Tomasulo.

That’s a fascinating question for all sorts of reasons. It’s odd that the definitions of “conspiracy” in those dictionaries wouldn’t mention secrecy, while the entries for “conspire” do. It’s like having two cake recipes, only one of which mentions flour. It’s hard enough to cook up a decent nefarious plot these days without getting mixed signals from major reference works. Then again, the whole concept of “secrecy” seems to be headed for extinction in the age of nano-drones the size of insects. That old “fly on the wall” trope (“I had been … wondering what it could all be about and wishing I could be a fly on the wall to hear them,” Nancy Mitford, 1949) is now real and comes armed with a high-speed data link to the NSA.

A “conspiracy” is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary (8th edition) as “An agreement by two or more persons to commit an unlawful act, coupled with an intent to achieve the agreement’s objective, and (in most states) action or conduct that furthers the agreement.” A “conspiracy” is also, as the OED says, “The action of conspiring; combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose,” so the word means both “the action” of conspiring and “the plan” that results. So far, no mention of “secrecy.” The OED (and the AHD and Merriam-Webster Online), however, invoke secrecy in their definitions of the underlying verb “to conspire.” The OED uses the term “privily,” meaning “privately or secretly” (“To combine privily for an evil or unlawful purpose; to agree together to do something criminal, illegal, or reprehensible”). The word “conspire” itself first appeared in English in the 14th century and comes from the Latin “conspirare” meaning “to be in agreement; to ally” (literally “to breathe together”). The noun “conspiracy” appeared later that century, based on the Latin “conspirationem,” the act of conspiring.

Incidentally, the fact that you have no friends to play with doesn’t mean you can’t cook up a really awesome conspiracy, kids. Since the late 14th century, “conspire” has also been used in a looser sense to mean “a single person secretly plotting to do something bad and/or illegal.” This means you can skip the part where your little Yoda action figure agrees with you in that squeaky voice.

So, must a conspiracy be secret to count as a conspiracy? I think so, because the action of forming the conspiracy (i.e., “conspiring”) is pretty universally defined as a process characterized by secrecy. Secrecy is what separates a conspiracy from just another boring business plan or “mission statement.” I think it’s also significant that the common synonyms of “conspire,” namely “to collude” and “to plot,” also are usually defined as requiring secrecy. Maybe the “public conspiracy” at issue in what you read was more of a needle in the modern haystack of information overload than a genuine closely-guarded secret.

Lastly, a fun fact about “plot” as a noun meaning “secret scheme.” It’s the same “plot” we use to mean “small parcel of land.” It was used to mean “map,” then “building plan,” then figuratively for the “plan” of a novel, play, etc., and eventually for a “secret plan” by nogoodniks.

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