English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A conspiracy or an intrigue?

Q: In a New Yorker story, Isaac Bashevis Singer writes, “Morris Krakower is clever at conspiracy, but intrigue isn’t necessary here.” I’ve googled and thesaurused, but I’m apparently too dense to get the distinction. I’m hoping you will clarify it for me.

A: The story, “Inventions,” describes a visit by Krakower, a representative of the Communist International, to Warsaw in the 1930s to address a leftist conference on world peace.

In his speech, Krakower defends Stalinism and “proclaims that only the dictatorship of the proletariat can insure peace.”

Although the Polish police have spies in the audience, Krakower isn’t concerned about secrecy. “A few weeks of prison,” he thinks, “can only enhance the prestige of a Party worker.”

So what does Singer mean when he writes that Comrade Krakower “is clever at conspiracy, but intrigue isn’t necessary here”?

We suspect he means that Krakower doesn’t have to resort to convoluted skullduggery to keep his work for the Communist Party secret.

Of course Singer, who died in 1991, was writing in Yiddish, not English. The translator of his story, Aliza Shevrin, is responsible for the English wording.

But is there really a distinction between “conspiracy” and “intrigue”? Not much, as far as we can see, at least not when the two words are used in the cloak-and-dagger sense.

Standard dictionaries generally define “conspiracy” as a secret plan by two or more people to do something illegal or harmful. And the dictionaries define “intrigue” as a secret plot or scheme.

About the only difference we can see is that it takes at least two people to conspire, but only one to intrigue.

When English adapted “conspiracy” from the Latin conspiratio in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word meant pretty much what it does today—a “combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose.”

The OED’s earliest citation, from “The Monk’s Tale” (circa 1386) by Chaucer, says Brutus and Cassius “Ful privately hath made conspiracie / Agains this Julius in subtil wise.”

When English borrowed “intrigue” from French in the mid-17th century, it referred to “intricacy, complexity; a complicated contrivance; a maze, a labyrinth,” according to Oxford, though that sense is now obsolete.

Before the century was over, the dictionary says, the English term took on the contemporary sense of “underhand plotting or scheming.”

Here’s an early example from The Usurper, a 1668 play by Edward Howard: “Intregue (the true Soul and Genius of the Stage).”

And here’s another, from a 1692 English translation of an essay by the French writer Charles de Saint-Évremond: “He was made Cardinal by Intrigues, Factions, and Tumults.”

Around the same time, “intrigue” took on its sense of “clandestine illicit intimacy between a man and a woman; a liaison,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this usage is from The Ephesian and Cimmerian Matrons (1668), by Walter Charleton: “She in like manner falls into an Intrigue (as they nowadays call it).”

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