Today let’s tackle another pair of easily confused words: allude and elude. And for good measure, let’s throw in delude.
All three come from the Latin root: ludere meaning “to play; to mimic, mock; to deceive.” Ludicrous—meaning ridiculous—is closely related. Other “lude” words (not to be confused with lewd) that evolve from this root include illusory, collusion, and prelude.
Adding the prefix al, meaning to, toward, or in addition to, changes the literal mean of allude to to play with. From there, it’s not difficult to arrive at its current English understanding: to refer to something indirectly or by suggestion only. Do you see the idea of toying or playing with someone or something? It is incorrect, however, to use allude in place of refer. The shift in meaning is subtle, but significant. For example: Steven Spielberg alludes to many of Hitchcock’s theatrical techniques in his movies and even adapts the story and title of one of Hitchcock’s most famous movies in his 2002 re-telling of Frank Abagnale’s life and crimes in Catch Me If You Can. Hitchcock’s influence is evident in Spielberg’s filmmaking. Although he doesn’t mimic Hitchcock exactly, there are hints, suggestions of Hitchcock’s work.
The prefix e means not, missing or away. Elude, then, means to avoid or escape by speed, cleverness or trickery. The original Latin meaning of elude, according to the Oxford English Dictionary was “escape from, make a fool of, win from at play.” Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 movie, eluded the FBI for years while he posed as an airline pilot, doctor, and an attorney. Abagnale was finally apprehended for check fraud and forgery and has since turned his penchant for illusion—appearing to be something he’s not—into helping the FBI identify and capture other defrauders.
Elude also means to escape perception or understanding. It would seem that the seriousness of his crimes eluded the young Abagnale. He may have been deluded into thinking his antics were just a game of cat and mouse. But in evading the law, he was simply deluding or deceiving himself. It would be a stretch, however, to say he was delusional since that implies an inability to distinguish reality from what only appears to be real.
But if I refer to the reformed Abagnale as a model citizen that is an allusion because it is a figure of speech that refers to or represents a larger group of people―law-abiding citizens. And given Abagnale’s record in recent years, I think that’s no illusion.