Q&A: Complacent vs complaisant

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we aim to please…

Q: Hi AWC. Can you help explain the difference between “complacent” and “complaisant”?

A: We certainly can. It is often confusing when words sound similar.

Q: Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I once tried raising funds for children across China and India, but no one seemed keen when I told them I wanted support for youth in Asia.

A: Um.

Q: Anyway, you were saying?

A: The complication with these two words is that they actually come from the same Latin parent, ‘complacere’ – meaning “very pleasing”. Both adjectives arrived in English around 1650 and initially they overlapped in meaning – describing someone who was eager to please.

Q: That doesn’t sound like the “complacent” of today.

A: You’re right. From the 1760s, the meaning for “complacent” started to align more with its modern day meaning of “being self-satisfied or pleased with oneself”.

Q: And “complaisant” stayed meaning “willing to please”?

A: That’s right. What’s more, “complacent” wasn’t just being pleased with oneself; it also started meaning being unaware of anything else happening around you.

Q: Example?

A: Sure. “We became complacent, making us vulnerable to attack”.

Q: Attack? Who’s attacking?

A: Calm down. It was just an example.

Q: Because you know that I’d be the first to sign up and help.

A: Well there’s an example of you being “complaisant” – obliging and agreeable. Hopefully you can see the difference now.

Q: I think so. “Complacent” is being pleased with yourself. While “complaisant” is pleasing others?

A: That’s a pretty good way to remember it. “Complaisant” isn’t common these days; people instead use words like “agreeable”. And while both are usually pronounced identically, you will occasionally hear a “z” sound with “complai-Z-ant”.

Q: Can I have some more examples?

A: Sure. “The time for being complacent about climate change is over.” Or: “The journalist was very complaisant, asking no difficult questions.” If you’re thinking personalities, “complacent” would be “smugly ignorant” while “complaisant” is more of “an obliging pushover”.

Q: I’ll be sure not to be too complacent when using these from now on. Thanks!

A: We aim to please.

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