Quid Pro Quo

Posted on February 1, 2020


In the recent spate of impeachment activities that either enthralled you or stupefied you with boredom, a Latin phrase quid pro quo, was thrown around as describing one sin of the President. The phrase means literally something for something, a favor for a favor. Later on, bribery was hurled at the President as one of the misdemeanors or high crimes he was guilty of, and then of lying, and I don’t remember the others as the Democrats worked to get rid of the guy who stole their election victory in 2016. The President responded in kind and it was a great show of democracy and free speech in our Republic to try and give it a nice spin for what I thought was a thoroughly sorry and self-serving episode on the part of many participants.

I thought of the old admonition from Scripture: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7: 1-3)

But that’s not what caught my attention. We tend to sprinkle our conversations and writings with quite a bit of Latin, ipso facto, sine qua non, e pluribus unum, ad hoc, de facto, carpe diem, and one of my favorites, pro bono, which means something is being done without pay or reimbursement.

How about this one? It came from on old student on mine, a UA graduate, ex-U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and later Argentina. I asked him about some Cuban refugee friends seeking political asylum after escaping from Cuba last year:  My friend Ambassador Lino Gutiérrez said it would be difficult unless they could prove they were actively being persecuted, and added “There’s even talk of reversing “jus solis” by denying citizenship to a child born of “illegal” parents.”

Why all the Latin I wondered?

Many think it confers some elegance and sophistication to language, recalling that we are not just English speakers but heirs of a long tradition in the West that connects our modern culture to the ancient Greeks and Romans, especially of course the latter, whose language was Latin. If one’s language conveys the spirit of any culture or civilization, to borrow from the Greco-Roman world in which Western Civilization was born certainly adds some cache to those who quote the ancient languages.

Some of us have actually studied the languages, although, in my case, we were forced to do so. But a lot of education which we might not like is good for us. That subject for another day.

My Latin teacher was Mr. Booth in the seventh grade at a prep school in Hillside, New Jersey. Mr. Booth drilled us in things like Julius Caesar’s writings on the Roman conquest of Gaul, and I can remember quite clearly that “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.” Or all Gaul (modern France) is divided into three parts and then we plunged into the text of Caesar’s account of his conquest of Gaul.

If someone’s attention strayed as we pondered on Caesar’s prose Mr. Booth drilled him (I was in an all boys’ school so I can’t be gender sensitive in this instance) with an eraser. If his attention strayed a second or third time, he could expect a piece of chalk instead of an eraser. Today Mr. Booth would be behind bars for assault and battery, but in my grammar school days, the erasers and chalk kept you on your toes.

English has always been receptive to changes and additions brought in by generations of immigrants from across the world. Today tacos are just as common as hamburgers, and we have brought in everything from rodeos cigars, mosquitos and hurricanes (Spanish) to loot (Hindi), Safari (Arabic), cul de sac (French), tsunami (Japanese), tattoo (Polynesian), and prairie (French) are just a very few examples. E.g., our language is loaded with accretions and additions to give it a richness that indeed represents the richness of a society and culture of immigrants. E.g., BTW, is the Latin abbreviation for the Latin phrase exempli gratia

Not all people are so receptive to changes imported from foreigners. Spaniards are notorious for inventing their own words to describe a common word accepted around the world, like computers. In Latin America, Spanish-speakers aren’t so fussy, and a computer is a computadora. In Spain it’s an ordenador.

Spanish speakers in the Western Hemisphere, from Mexico to Chile, are more like us in incorporating foreign words. I read in the Peruvian press recently where estress was a common affliction of the modern era. Estress I thought? Of course, stress. I have no idea what Spaniards in Spain have invented to describe stress, but the Peruvians, like Mexicans, Colombians, etc. live with estress too.

So, don’t estress out when you read or hear politicians use Latin phrases. That’s just their m.o. (modus operandi) to give them a sense of being better educated than common folk like you and me.

Published as “What’s with all the Latin being used these days?” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Dec. 15 2019.

Posted in: Translating, words