The shady roots of ‘quid pro quo’

You clicked on this link, so we will give you something in return: a bit of the history of “quid pro quo.”

The expression has been in the news recently, of course. Defenders of President Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine have insisted there was no “quid pro quo” in asking Ukraine to investigate the “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory and the conduct of Joe Biden’s son.

“Quid pro quo” means “something given or received for something else,” as the Merriam-Webster definition says. As a straightforward definition, it indicates a transaction. It comes from Latin meaning, literally, “something for something.” In legal parlance, according to The Law Dictionary, “quid pro quo” is “[u]sed in law for the giving [of] one valuable thing for another. It is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.”

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But “quid pro quo” has shady roots, and it seems to be returning to them. As M-W 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.”

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The implication of a “quid pro quo” is that both sides know they are getting something for something. You order coffee, and the barista or cashier says, “That will be $8, please.” (You have expensive tastes.) If the coffee shop meant to give you coffee as a gift, they would not have asked for the “quid” for the “quo.”

The memorandum of Trump’s phone call with Ukraine (remember, it’s not a transcript) can leave the impression that a transaction was being discussed. If the memo is accurate, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine mentioned that he would like to buy some more Javelin anti-tank systems. Trump immediately replies: “I would like you to do us a favor though.” That one word, “though,” is usually a transition, linking between the something just discussed with the thing about to be discussed. Without “though,” what follows could be considered a new topic with little to no connection to the previous one.

The way Democrats and Trump critics are using “quid pro quo” takes the phrase back to its negative roots. It is being used to mean not just a swap of good will, but a swap with less-than-pure motives on at least one side of the transaction. The coffee shop will give you your $8 coffee without judgment, and with no legal implications. Not so with any “quid pro quo” of weapons for political dirt.

We’re a column about language, not politics. Language is necessary for communication, but how people use and interpret language creates the connection that results in communication. Depending on context, “quid pro quo” can mean a straightforward exchange of “something for something” in its legal sense, or it might mean a shadier transaction or a retaliatory “tit for tat.” The impression might be in the eye of the reader and how that reader views the phrase.

So, be careful of what you “quo” for.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.