You certainly don’t want to get these two words mixed up, especially since one of the words is used to describe behavior that is immoral and/or illegal (they don’t always overlap you know—something can be immoral but not illegal, and vice versa). The other day, I was sending a text to a friend, and I was typing about how I was trying to “illicit a response from somebody.” Then I thought, wait a second… I looked at illicit and knew I had used the wrong word, but then I was confused about the right word’s spelling: elicit or ellicit? Two L’s or one?
[Take note: Editors aren’t immune to mistakes!]
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. The thing about elicit (it just has one L) and illicit is this: they are sometimes homophones, but it depends on who is talking. I’m originally from California but now live in Oregon, and I pronounce them the same with a beginning uh-like sound. Some speakers, though, pronounce the e in elicit like the beginning of easy and eel, and they pronounce the beginning of illicit with an ill sound.
Now for their differences in meaning. Elicit is a verb that means to draw out information. Illicit, as referenced in the first paragraph above, is an adjective that means illegal or immoral. We often talk about someone’s illicit behavior. They way I remember which is which is by associating illicit with illegal. Both start with ill, so they must go together, making it an easy trick for me.
Now the next time you need to elicit a response from someone about their potential illicit behavior, both words and their meanings and spellings will be clear as mud—I mean crystal!—in your mind.
You smell like cigarette smoke! (Trying to elicit a response.)
Were you smoking behind the high school bleachers when you were supposed to be in English class? (Confronting a teenager about their illicit behavior.)