The Difference Between Complacent and Complaisant

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It’s easy to mix up these two words, but there’s a world of difference in their meanings.

Complacent means self-satisfied or smug and derives in part from the Latin verb placere (to please). Example:

He felt complacent about his excellent examination results.

Complaisant, on the other hand, means eager to please or obliging.  An example of its use is:

He had thought she might oppose him, but found that she was surprisingly complaisant.

Here are some quotations from newspapers:

… announced Thursday along with other Council committee assignments for the next four years, as focused on prodding a “complacent bureaucracy” to better provide city services and dig “deep into the operational failures of city … (www.nytimes.com)

Coming from San Francisco, I had feared that I would find L.A. too complacent about healthcare issues that were important to me. After 20 years working in the San Francisco Health Department … (www.latimes.com)

In fact, the fast way to $100 a share is the kind of deep cost-cutting that this relatively complaisant company has never been known for. This includes, as an order of magnitude, what knowledgeable insiders report is a call to slice $100 million out of CNN’s annual budget of nearly $750 million. — USA Today

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6 thoughts on “The Difference Between Complacent and Complaisant”

  1. Good Morning, Now I am really confused. I guess my example would be: If I am speaking with two different employees and I tell one that they are complacent and the other that they are complaisant I will get the same negative response from both, even though I have two different meanings in mind. To further muddle the issue, Answer.com gives both meanings for the word complacent. Is there much usage of the word complaisant? Quite honestly, I’ve never encountered the word before today.

    Thank you,

  2. Brad, compliant comes from the Latin for ‘to complete’ and the dictionary of etymology lists ‘be complaisant with’ as one of the meanings for comply.

    Rick, I don’t hear the word much, but I do see it in books. According to Collins English Dictionary, the use of ‘complacent’ as a synonym for ‘complaisant’ is obsolete.

  3. Brad,
    well the two words are pronunced slightly the same. Many of us and even students especially may not notice this.This will further confuse learners especially 2nd language learners. What do you think?

  4. A question about ‘complaisant’. My friend and I are currently at odds about this. Which preposition comes after complaisant? Is it ‘with’? Is it ‘to’ or ‘toward’? Just curious.

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