Complacent vs. Complaisant

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Both complacent and complaisant descend from Latin complacere, “to please, to be pleasant,” but they have acquired different meanings in English.

complacent (adjective): feeling or showing pleasure or satisfaction, especially in one’s own conditions; self-satisfied.
complacence/complacency (noun): the state of being pleased.

The nouns complacence and complacency convey the idea of self-satisfaction accompanied by a lack of awareness of a potential danger. Here are some examples of current usage:

The danger is that being too complacent can derail your career.

10 Signs Your Employees Are Growing Complacent In Their Careers

Complacent investors have a way of pushing markets steadily higher despite the swirl of bad news around them.

The U.S. can’t afford to get complacent about obesity

Complacency toward Ukraine crisis could cost Conservatives at the polls

complaisant (adjective): the action or habit of making oneself agreeable.
complaisance (noun): courtesy, politeness.

The noun complaisance entered the language by way of French about two hundred years after complacence. It retains its French spelling and the meaning of being pleasant to others. A complaisant person is eager to please.

I think of complaisant as an old-fashioned Jane Austen word, but it is still to be found in current usage:

He [Donald Sterling] will find a complaisant television talk show host to give him a platform for a heartfelt public apology.

By closing down one plant and punishing its workers, workers in other plants would be forced into more complaisant behavior.

As inevitably happens with such similar word pairs, complacent and complaisant are often misused. The following examples use complaisant in the sense of complacent:

“The law doesn’t affect me, so why should/would I care?”–That is a very complaisant attitude.

 I think Don has been somewhat complaisant. He’s keeping tabs on the agency but he has made no effort to try and get back in to work.

People who vote for the incumbent are probably pretty complaisant about what their Senator actually does and stands for on the world stage.

We are very complaisant in this country because we have enjoyed so many years of having relatively peaceful lives.

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11 thoughts on “Complacent vs. Complaisant”

  1. Excellent subject MM! Just the fact that I am not complaisant about such things, and I’ve never thought about the distinction between the two makes me think it is common. I think either word, right or not, gets used to mean “passive”, which doesn’t really fit either.

    To the extent that complaisant is “Jane Austen-ish” is reminds me of the distinction asserted (at least in American English) between complete and compleat.

  2. I have NEVER seen the word “complaisant” used in American English, and I am a very widely-read man – mostly in nonfiction, but including some fiction, too.
    Thus, I am willing to write down “complaisant” as a word in British English, rather like “pram”, “loo”, “railway”, “aerodrome”, “aeroplane”, “bonnet” (the part of a car), “flat” (an apartment), “dustman”, “dustbin”, “valve” (a vacuum tube).

    By the way, the most important kind of a vacuum tube, the triode, was invented by Lee de Forest of the United States in 1906. He was a graduate of Yale University. The famous actor, DeForest Kelley, of STAR TREK, was named for him, by his father who was fascinated by the radio. He was born in 1921.

  3. But many of those are slang terms, not formal words let alone old ones. Pram is short for perambulator, which is sort of an “old fashioned” word I suppose. Complaisant it is real word, don’t know where Maeve got the examples. ?

  4. Complaisant. That’s a new word for me.

    D.A.W. – I love the free association from valve to de Forrest to DeForest Kelly. It reminds me of an episode where Spock referred to rather bulky, archaic devices called “transistors.”

  5. A reader sent me a question on this post via the DWT info address. Because other readers may have the same question, I’m going to post it here with my response.

    Question: What’s your point? Are you saying these two words are interchangeable? Both uses sound acceptable written, and also in speech (where no one can see the spelling!!).

    Response: Not at all. The words are different in meaning and in pronunciation. The second c in “complacent” is pronounced with the sound /s/. The s in “complaisant” has the /z/ sound.

    Someone self-satisfied is complacent.
    Someone willing to please is complaisant.

  6. Venqax and DAW,
    Complaisant is not as common in either British or American speech as it was in earlier decades, but it is still current in both. Most of my examples are probably from American sources. The Sterling one is from the LA Times.

  7. @MM: OK. I know I have seen it, though I couldn’t say where.

    @Anonymous Reader At DWT Info: Huh? The article very clearly articulates the different meanings of the 2 different words.

    complacent (adjective): feeling or showing pleasure or satisfaction, especially in one’s own conditions; self-satisfied.

    complaisant (adjective): the action or habit of making oneself agreeable.

    How are you missing the point? Also their, there, and they’re are different; your and you’re are different; as are to, too, and two. A period (.) indicates that a sentence has ended.

  8. Would I be less than complaisant if I pointed out the dangling participle in one of the examples? Take another look at this one: “By closing down one plant and punishing its workers, workers in other plants would be forced into more complaisant behavior.”

  9. Yes, Donley, there is definitely a dangling participle there. Thank you for pointing out that mistake.

    In the sentence “…workers in other plants would be forced into more complaisant behavior”, it seems to me that the writer might have misused “complaisant” in the place of “pliable”.
    Note that I used the word “might” because I am not making a bald statment like some people here do.
    The (psychological) word “pliable” indicates a willingness to be pushed around. I did not mean “pliable” from physics and mechanical engineering.

  10. The father of DeForest Kelley was a Protestant minister in the region along the Savannah River. When the radio came into use back in the early 1920s, the father was fascinated by the prospect of using the radio in evangelism, of course. Mr. Kelley loved the idea so much that he named his son “DeForest” after the inventor of the triode tube, Lee de Forest.

    Triodes were vital back then in making amplifiers and superheterodyne receivers – which had been invented by Major Edwin Armstrong of the U.S. Army in 1917 or ’18.
    The principle of the superheterodyne receiver is still vital, in transistorized form, in radio receivers, TV sets, radar systems, satellite communications, and on and on…
    Later on, Edwin Armstrong also invented the whole system of FM (frequency modulation) radio. He was one of the true geniuses of electronics engineering. (I bow down and say “salami, salami, baloney!”)

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