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What Does 'Quid Pro Quo' Really Mean?

Meghan Moravcik Walbert Oct 10, 2019. 14 comments

As pressure mounts around the impeachment inquiry by House Democrats, there’s one phrase you’ve probably heard being bandied about: “quid pro quo.” As in, when President Trump urged Ukraine’s newly elected president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, was it part of a quid pro quo? And what does that even mean?

“Quid pro quo” is a Latin phrase that translates to “something for something.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “something given or received for something else.” It’s a transaction. I go to the grocery store, I give them a couple of bucks, they give me a gallon of milk; quid pro quo. I babysit my friend’s son for a couple of hours, she brings me a homemade banana bread in return; quid pro quo.

Those are typical everyday examples, but context is everything and “quid pro quo” is starting to take on a bit of a negative connotation:

I’m not here to debate whether Trump’s conversation was quid pro quo or just a friendly ask (although, as you might imagine, I do have my opinions). I’m just operating today as a connoisseur of words who finds it interesting how language evolves. And in this case, the Columbia Journalism Review analyzes that “quid pro quo” may actually be evolving back to its more negative roots.

“Quid pro quo” has shady roots, and it seems to be returning to them. As M-W (Merriam-Webster) says, in the early 16th century, a “quid pro quo” came from an apothecary and “referred to the process of substituting one medicine for another—whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

While that usage is considered obsolete, The Oxford English Dictionary’s next definition, from the mid-16th century, shows that “quid pro quo” continued carrying a taint: “One thing in return or exchange for another; tit for tat.” Today, we use “tit for tat” mostly to mean payback or retaliation, or, as M-W puts it, “an equivalent given in return (as for an injury) : retaliation in kind.”

So you can still use the happy, pure “quid pro quo” usage to refer to the $4 Starbucks latte splurge—or you can use “quid pro quo” in circumstances where motives may be more nefarious.


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