A History Of 'Quid Pro Quo'

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tags: politics, impeachment, Trump, quid pro quo


MARTIN: A central question that will decide if President Donald J. Trump is impeached is whether or not he engaged in a quid pro quo with the leader of Ukraine. So now that this Latin phrase has become so important, we thought we'd take some time to understand it, how it entered the English language, how its meaning has changed over time and how our own expectations can turn a harmless-sounding request into an implied quid pro quo.

BEN ZIMMER: In Latin, it just simply means something for something.

MARTIN: That's Ben Zimmer, and his job is to think about words as the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

ZIMMER: I think that the political situation can't help but reform the way that we're going to understand this particular phrase even though it's been in the language for, oh, about 500 years.

MARTIN: The whole idea of a quid pro quo is so fundamental to the human experience, we've got all kinds of ways to say it, right? - you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours - one hand washes the other - or those three letters, I-O-U. Zimmer says the first recorded use of the phrase quid pro quo in English meant something totally different.

ZIMMER: In the 16th century, very often, if you got a drug from an apothecary, what you would be getting might not be exactly what you asked for but a substitution of some sort. And so apothecaries apparently did this as just a regular practice of giving something that was close enough but making a substitution.

MARTIN: Instead of the quid you asked for, you got the quo. Sounds harmless enough, but Zimmer said it could lead to problems.

ZIMMER: Very often, the drugs that were swapped out would lead to someone getting something that didn't work as well or could even be harmful. And so this was a practice that people were scared of.

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