Today we’re going to be a little bit cheeky, again, like we were when we were immoral … or was it amoral? There’s been a lot of sad news this week and it’s nice to kick back and break the rules every now and again. Oh, well, who am I kidding: it’s nearly midnight, I’ve worked a long day and then realised I didn’t have a Troublesome Pair to publish when one was due, so here I am, conforming to my own laws, let alone everyone else’s! Without further ado, then: unlawful, illegal or illicit?
Something is illegal when it is actually against the law, for example selling drugs, going around killing people, that sort of thing. Sorry, I don’t mean to be flippant: like I said, it’s been a long day. So illegal: against the law.
An unlawful action is also against the law … but it’s against the law – or, more properly, rules – within a specific context, rather than the actual laws of the land. So if you’re watching Strictly Come Dancing, and the dancers perform a lift when the lady’s feet aren’t meant to leave the floor, that’s unlawful. But not illegal.
An illicit action is more commonly used nowadays to describe something that is forbidden by custom or society – you can have an illicit love affair, or sneak an illicit cigarette when you say you’ve given up.
“Their illicit love affair turned illegal when she punished him for the unlawful act of not wearing white on the court at Wimbledon by libelling him in the papers.”