The literal meaning of “quid pro quo,” a key term from the Trump impeachment hearings, is “something for something,” and it is defined as “something given or received for something else.”
Recently, a young man in a class I was teaching informed me that I was one of thirty-three writers who had signed a letter to the editor of the Times clarifying the meaning of “quid pro quo” and protesting its use as a synonym for criminality in the impeachment hearings. I did not remember signing the letter, but I wished I had. The letter was an eloquent plea for “precise and forceful language”—the gist of it was that the Latin “quid pro quo” is a neutral term meaning “this for that” and does not adequately describe criminal behavior. Written by Roxana Robinson, a past president of the Authors Guild, the letter was signed by thirty-two other writers—all women, many of them local (Brooklyn, Long Island), most of them writers of fiction—and it was effective. After its publication, on November 8th, Nancy Pelosi directed Democrats to stop referring to the U.S. President’s exchange with the Ukrainian President (“do us a favor, though”) as a quid pro quo and to call it by its real name: “bribery” or “extortion.”
Much of the commentary on “quid pro quo” has focussed on its Latin origins and suggested that its wide circulation might spark an interest in dead languages. One of the reasons I was pretty sure I had not signed the letter is that I have never studied Latin. Growing up Catholic, in the fifties and sixties, I couldn’t help imbibing a little Church Latin. I knew “Ora pro nobis” (“Pray for us”), the numbing response to a litany of the saints—which, come to think of it, may be worth repeating. I made what sense I could of the syllables of “Ecce sacerdos magnus” (“Behold a high priest”), sung when the bishop visited; it sounded like “Hey, chase a chartreuse mongoose.” And I am familiar with the conventional prose flourishes (i.e., e.g., and n.b.) and the standard academic abbreviations (ibid., op. cit.), as well as with the copy-editing term “stet,” for “let it stand,” and the religious publishing term “imprimatur,” for “let it be printed.” “De gustibus” I know from the catalogue for Macy’s cooking classes, and I remember a bar in the East Village called Tempus Fugit. But that’s about it. The legal terms baffle me. Habeas corpus? What is that? Do you have the body? Whose body? Why? Is the body dead or alive? I don’t know.
So I turned to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which has a section at the back headed “Foreign Words & Phrases.” Salto mortale is there: an Italian phrase for “deadly jump, dangerous or crucial undertaking.” Also Vade retro me, Satana—the Latin for “Get thee behind me, Satan”—and Qui s’excuse s’accuse, which is French for “He who excuses himself accuses himself.” All of these seem freshly relevant. But “quid pro quo” was not there. Our language has a lot of Latin in it, and once speakers of English have got hold of a Latin word and use it frequently enough, it is, ipso facto, English. “Quid pro quo” can be found under “Q” in the dictionary proper, between “quidnunc” and “quids in.” It is derived from New Latin, meaning that it was not current in ancient Rome; its first recorded use was in 1539, in the Middle Ages, when Latin was the lingua franca of scientific writing. The word’s literal meaning is “something for something,” and it is defined as “something given or received for something else.” It forms its plural in the usual English way: “quid pro quos,” like gin-and-tonics.
At the Miami Book Fair last weekend, just down the road from Mar-a-Lago, Roxana Robinson, a slim, pale, elegant woman, talked about the letter over dinner with some friends. She had written it “at white heat,” she said. She remained adamant about the subject and gave an example: “You drive and I’ll buy the gas—that’s a quid pro quo.” The signatories were gathered from a female fiction-writers’ network.
I had puzzled briefly over the student’s assertion that I signed the letter. I don’t take Ambien, so I was pretty sure that I hadn’t signed it in my sleep while raiding the refrigerator. It was also unlikely that my signature had been forged. The student beavered into his laptop to find the letter online and show it to me. He scrolled down the list of names—Rachel Cline, Barbara Fischkin, Susan Merrell—and pointed to Mary Morris. Mystery solved. “That’s not me,” I said. Mary Morris is a Brooklyn-based writer who was published long before I was. She is not to be confused with the New England writer Mary McGarry Morris. I have met Mary Morris and friended her on Facebook, and even I sometimes get confused when I see a post by her and wonder when I wrote a book about tigers.
But the student was adamant. “It’s only one letter off,” he said. Did I mention that this was a class on proofreading?