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Quid pro quo: the origins of the Latin term and how its uses evolved in English

Trump: there was no quid pro quo. Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Amid the drama of the impeachment investigation into US President Donald Trump that is gripping Capitol Hill in Washington, the term quid pro quo has taken centre stage.

The investigation is trying to determine whether Trump demanded Ukraine open an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, before its President Volodymr Zelenskiy would be invited to the White House. In his opening statement on November 20 in a series of impeachment hearings, the US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, said: “Was there a quid pro quo? … With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

A popular online legal dictionary defines the Latin phrase as: “The mutual consideration that passes between two parties to a contractual agreement, thereby rendering the agreement valid and binding.”

In Latin, the phrase means literally “what for what”, or “something for something” (quid being short for aliquid, or “something”).

One issue with quid pro quo is that the sense in which the phrase is used nowadays is subtly different from its original use. The invaluable online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) states its first recorded use in English is from about 1535, in a translation of a work about Christian confession by the humanist writer Erasmus. There it is explained as “one thynge for another”. The context here was medical: the Erasmian text where it was first found describes it as a proverb used among “poticaries and phisions” (chemists and doctors in modern terms) and it is used with reference to medicines.

Let’s say you have trouble sleeping and can’t get your usual Somnotab, but the pharmacist has another sleeping tablet, Zizzoprene. Taking Zizzoprene instead of Somnotab would be a quid pro quo in the strict sense, something which can be readily exchanged for another. This sense didn’t bed into English long term, and the last reference to this meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary Online is from 1804.

It wasn’t long, though, before the sense we generally know, “something in return for something else” came in – OED says it is first mentioned in a legal document from 1560, also listed in the OED. It has kept this sense ever since. Another sense for the phrase, “someone pretending to be somebody they are not”, apparently died out before 1700. But both ideas would be expressed in Latin by quid pro quo – or so scholars think. The phrase doesn’t occur in a huge corpus of classical Latin texts collated by Packhard Humanities Institute, so we can’t truly be sure if it was ever actually used in Latin.

Quid pro quo: not a common Latin phrase. Sharaf Maksumov/Shutterstock

Common parlance

The fact that a phrase from another language isn’t accompanied by an immediate translation should suggest that everyone understands it and that it is now firmly part of the language. My own research and others’ in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Language Contact, which I edited, suggests that this is a good sign that it has therefore been fully “nativised”. But that should not be taken for granted.

Some phrases are used so often that people now neither know nor care what the original form was (AD is a good example, so are AM and PM). Others are written down but are hardly used in speech except when people are being especially pretentious or stiff: ie and eg (which often get confused) are examples of this. Some, such as percent and et cetera, will probably be used in English till the crack of doom.

But there are others which have dropped out of use or which remain as mere abbreviations. Sometimes this is the result of convenience: nem. con. is easier to put at the end of a minute in formal records than nemine contradicente, “with nobody speaking against it”, a phrase with four times as many syllables as its abbreviated form.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary is not immune from assuming that Latin abbreviations have self-evident meanings. Whole books have been produced explaining how to use the second edition of 1989, which includes frequent Latin abbreviations which any user needs to know. For example, circa for approximately and ante for before are written as single letters, c and a, immediately before dates, such as c1200 (around 1200). So is s.v. for sub verbo “under the word” – in other words, look for the word you seek under the dictionary entry for X.

Made up Latin

And some Latin phrases are tenacious in English without actually being old or even genuine. Annus mirabilis was minted in 1667 by the poet John Dryden to describe the previous year, while its opposite, annus horribilis, was originally coined in The Guardian in 1985 to describe some of the events of 1968.

There is also the matter of Procol Harum, Bach-influenced proto-prog rockers from the 1960s. Does their name mean, as rock enthusiasts have sometimes assumed, “beyond these things”? Julius Caesar wouldn’t have liked it. Procul (note the spelling) means “far away”, but if it were correct Latin it would need to be procul his (harum means “of these” with nouns that are feminine). So the correct Latin for the meaning they wanted would be, procul his rebus – which sounds to and English-speaking person more like an instruction to a medieval executioner than an attempt at showing that you are “far out”.

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