‘Collusion’ and its playful roots

A look at the surprising etymology of this dark word in the news.

Kathy Willens/AP
Oakland Athletics acting bench coach Chip Hale (r.), congratulates Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman after an interleague baseball game on July 23, 2017, in New York. While the phrase 'play ball' usually applies to America's national pastime, to 'play ball' with someone else is also often used to refer to collusion.

I remember when I first heard the word “collusion.”

Our family had just moved from a major metropolitan area to a town of about 10,000. One of the many adjustments we had to make was to retailers that didn’t carry much inventory. Anything we wanted that was not just plain vanilla seemed to require a special order from the regional distributor across the river in another state, or even from – gasp! – Atlanta.

Of course it was natural to have fewer choices in a smaller community. But the scuttlebutt we heard was that the situation was made worse by an inventory tax that local merchants had to pay on all goods in stock at the turn of the year. This gave them all an incentive to sell out of everything at the holidays and generally not to keep much merchandise on hand.

Well, I asked at one point of the grown-ups around me, clever 13-year-old that I was, couldn’t a merchant get around this by selling stuff to a friend at the end of the year and buying it back after he’d paid the tax?

The grown-ups were aghast. No, dear, that would be “collusion.”

This was clearly not a good thing. It sounded like a portmanteau of “collision” and “confusion.” Someone may have used the word “fraud” to explain what was wrong with my little tax-avoidance idea, and I certainly knew what fraud was.

Now with “collusion” very much in the news, a little etymological research seems in order.

There’s something actually ludicrous about it. I’m not kidding. The word has been part of the English language since before 1400, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It came into English via French from a Latin verb colludere, from com, or with, plus ludere, to play. 

Ludere is also the root of “ludicrous,” which originally meant “relating to play or to sport” before morphing, around 1780, into meaning “ridiculous,” for which it is a near-anagram. (The sound symbolism must have been a factor there.) 

Merriam-Webster identifies a number of word-cousins sharing that ludere root: “Allude” embodies the notion of “playing to” someone or something. A “prelude” is “played before” something, e.g., a church service. 

Delude” reflects the idea of “playing” or “laughing” someone “down” – of a put-down, in short. “Elude” seems to have meant something like “to go out with a punch line” before it meant “to evade.”

“Collusion” has had a darker history from the beginning, though. “Despite their playful history,” Merriam-Webster notes, “collude and collusion have always suggested deceit or trickery rather than good-natured fun.” 

But the idea of “play” does show up in the idiom so often used to refer to collusion: to “play ball” with someone else. And it’s actually more often used in the negative: “They wanted to involve him in their price-fixing scheme, but he wouldn’t play ball with them.”

Let’s hear it for not playing ball after all.

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