The online Macmillan dictionary defines conspirator as “someone who secretly makes a plan with another person or group to do something bad or illegal, especially in politics.” Merriam-Webster defines a conspirator as “a person who is involved in a secret plan to do something harmful or illegal : a person who is involved in a conspiracy.” Conspiracy is defined as “a secret plan by a group of people to do something bad or illegal, especially in politics.”
Why, then, do lawyers speak of co-conspirators? Isn’t the “co-” unnecessary?
Yes and no. Suppose we’re talking about Bob and Frank. Bob and Frank are conspirators. If you have Bob on the stand and you’re talking about him, he’s a conspirator. If you also want to talk about Frank, you can refer to him as Bob’s co-conspirator, to indicate that he is the specific person (or one of the people) Bob conspired with. Referring to Bob directly as a co-conspirator is redundant, since he didn’t conspire with himself.
My usage dictionary notes that “co-conspirator” is shorter than saying “fellow conspirator,” which would otherwise fit the bill. Anyone involved in any of a number of different conspiracies could be described as a “conspirator.” They are only “co-conspirators” if they are engaged in the same conspiracy. “Co-conspirator” helps to remove any ambiguity about whether they were conspiring with one another. It’s probably unnecessary in most contexts because there is only one conspiracy at issue but in some cases, it might be clearer.
If you read only that “Bill and Ted are being charged as conspirators,” the sentence might indicate that Bill is being charged with conspiracy to import drugs while Ted is being charged with a different conspiracy to sell guns. You couldn’t tell.
You two need to read Ethilrist’s comment more carefully, it was a perfect explanation.
Bill and Ted conspired to commit a crime.
What is Ted’s relationship to Bill?
Is Ted “Bill’s conspirator”? Clearly not, that doesn’t make sense.
Ted is Bill’s co-conspirator.
The slight oddness arises only because “conspirator” already happens to begin with co-.
Consider the parallel “defendant”.
Bill and Ted are being tried together, they are both defendants in the same trial.
Is Ted “Bill’s defendant”? Clearly not.
Ted is Bill’s co-defendant.
The initial co- is certainly not always redundant.
In seventh grade the teacher turned around just as I threw a wad of paper back to the guy who hit me with it. She called out, “Dennis, you and your cohort can step out into the hall”. I had no idea what a cohort was, and heard it as “cold horse” anyway. The perp just sat there and I went out into the hall alone, to receive a whacking. Two whacks by the dreaded gym teacher.
Don’t try to lay no co-conspiracy on the king of cohortese.
This brings to mind a “news” story that wastrending on Bing this morning. It seems that a fan of the movie Grease has been spreading the idea that Sandy drowned at the start of the movie, and the whole story took place in her mind during her last moments of life. (Apparently this fan feels the need for an explanation of why the car was flying at the end of the film.)
Why this is considered news, I don’t know. I guess it’s a slow day. But I’m even more confused as to why there are headlines calling this a “conspiracy theory.” Who are the conspirators?
I used to rant about this and finally gave up. How is it not redundant to stick 2 prefixes meaning ‘with’ on the front of a word? But in reality, the word wouldn’t have arisen and stuck around if it were completely useless. That’s just how language evolves, man.