Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Episode 179: Quid Pro Quo Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 179: Quid Pro Quo

Record Date: January 22, 2023

Air Date: January 25, 2023



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Most people make regular, little agreements in their day-to-day lives. When making a trade whether it is for items, information, and so on they want the trade to be equal. People want it to feel like they got something good out of it, too. They aren’t just giving things away. They are just looking for a little Quid Pro Quo


One of the most common agreements between individuals involves the simplest form of exchange - getting one thing for something else. When this exchange doesn’t involve a form of payment like cash, it is often a situation that might be called tit for tat or this for that. A common way to express that an equal exchange has occurred is to say, Quid Pro Quo

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Quid Pro Quo means, 


 One thing in place of another; 


The action or fact of replacing one thing with another; a substitution; esp. a mistake or blunder consisting of such a substitution

End Quote 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first attestation in English comes from the translation of a Latin work by Erasmus that was published in 1535. The work is titled, A lytle treatise of the maner and forme of confession, made by the most excellent and famous clerke.


Poticaries and physicians do more grevously offend, than do these persons now rehearsed, which have a proverbe among them, quid pro quo, one thynge for another.

End Quote  

The text also specifies that there was not a corresponding sentence found in the original text. So the phrase, at least in this portion of the text, was added for the translated version in English. 

Now, this phrase was in use prior to this and it’s likely that English speaking folks were using it as well. The origin of the phrase is Latin, no surprisingly. Quid Pro Quo is what’s called a borrowing. For those who may be new to that term, it means that we took a phrase from its original language and just moved the whole thing as-is to English without translating and without significantly changing the pronunciation. In this case, the phrase moved to the English language in reference to medicine. 

Since we are not Latin experts here at Bunny Trails and it might take the rest of my life to research every incidence of this phrase in Latin texts… I’ll just share one example. 

This comes from the 1511 text by Augustino Nifo titled, Eutychis Elucidarium of Metaphysical Discussions.

The name Eutychis means fortunate or lucky and you can learn more about a very interesting young man by that name in the behind the scenes bonus, available to Patrons at all levels.. 

Here is an excerpt from the text and then a rough translation. I will do my best with pronunciation here. 


Dico, Solutio uo Medici sumunt quo pro quid. Sic loquentes sumunt quid pro quo hoc est pro simili. 

End Quote 

This translates to, 


I say the solution is that doctors take quo pro quid hoc est pro simili.

what this is for what it is like.

End quote 

This text is entirely in Latin and I won’t put you through me reading any more of it. However, I want to note that quid pro quo and quo pro quid are used interchangeably throughout. 

The text discusses doctors trading with medicine women or healers or using natural herbs to serve the same purpose as medicines they know. The text also discusses that different colors of a medicine or solution do not mean the medicine will necessarily have a different effect. At this time, colors were related to various things like infection or love or clarity or purity. So it was a big deal. 

And that’s how we brought the phrase over into English… to say that in medicine there are times when you can take this for that. 

What about this idea of a mistake? This is a little more complicated. 

It can refer to times when the wrong item was in place of the right item and it caused a problem. A very extreme modern example of this concept would be when prop ammunition, known as blanks, is accidentally replaced with real ammunition which results in an injury or worse. The items look exactly the same so this for that.

This can also refer to a mistake being corrected by appropriate compensation. Or a situation being fixed by replacing some aspect to make things right. 

For one example of these ideas, we go to Timothy Bright’s Treatise on the Sufficiency English Medicine published in 1580.


Can the temper mend them? or a quid pro quo, as they call them, serve the turn?

End Quote 

To serve the turn essentially means to satisfy a purpose or need. 

In this next piece, the concept isn’t seen as a positive one. This comes from the 1604 work by Robert Parsons and John Foxe titled, An Examen of the Calendar Or Catalogue of Protestant Saints, Martyrs, and Consellors, Devised by Jon Fox, and Prefixed Before His Great Volume, of Acts and Monuments.


And later in the text…

End Quote 

So this author does not trust those who offer quid pro quo. I didn’t see this negative concept too frequently, but rather it seems that the term is more neutral and applied to situations in different ways. 

Let’s take a look at a resource from the early 1700s. The work An Universal Etymological English Dictionary by Nathan Bailey was published in 1721.

Here is our phrase in the dictionary,


End Quote 

To expound on that law a little, we will take a look at the 1725 work by Giles Jacob titled, 

The Student's Companion: Or, the Reason of the Laws of England. Shewing the Principal Reasons and Motives Whereon Our Laws and Statutes are Grounded ... So as to Convey to All Students ... the Fundamental Knowledge of the Law, Necessary in Their Studies

Here is an excerpt


End Quote 

This next excerpt was found in a letter to the editor in the Constitutional Whig June 22, 1824 out of Richmond, Virginia.


End Quote 

On the front page of The times September 03, 1898 out of Richmond, Virginia, was an interesting call to attention. 



End Quote 

July 03, 1915 edition of the Denver labor bulletin out of Denver, Colorado 


End Quote 

From The review April 02, 1914, out of High Point, North Carolina, comes the following excerpt,


End Quote 

I thought this was an interesting take on things. I suppose all of our interactions are a little bit of a quid pro quo. 

We’ll get to our modern examples, right after we take a moment to say thank you to our sponsors. 

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Modern Uses

Quid Pro Quo is a song performed by the Munich Symphony that was used in the movie The Silence Of The Lambs. This song was released in 1991. This is an instrumental piece and fits with the movie well. 

Quid Pro Quo is a book by Vicki Grant that was released in 2005

Here is the synopsis


Quid Pro Quo is a high-stakes, fast-moving legal thriller about real people, and funny people at that. Cyril MacIntyre's mother is a twenty-eight-year-old ex-street kid who drags her son to all her law school classes, then proceeds to get herself kidnapped. That aside, Cyril's life isn't too different from that of other thirteen-year-olds. He has all the usual adolescent issues to deal with: parent problems, self-esteem problems, skin, hair and girl problems. He just has legal problems too. And he's got to solve them if he wants to save his mother's life.

End Quote 

The book Quid Pro Quo: What the Romans Really Gave the English Language by Peter Jones was published 2018.


Peter Jones takes the reader on a fascinating journey along the highways and byways of Roman life and culture, telling the amazing stories behind the original Latin meanings and uses of hundreds of our everyday words. Taking in every aspect of the ancient world, including science, religion, military matters, politics and literature, Jones shows just how much the English language owes to the ancient Romans and the role Latin has played in the creation of our vast vocabulary.

End Quote 

Quid Pro Quo is an artwork created by Jessica Eichman found on Saatchi Art It is a painting, acrylic on canvas that was completed in 2019. In the description it simply reads that the art is a reflection on time in which it was created. It’s a neat abstract piece. 

Quid Pro Woe is the title of an episode of the show Wednesday which aired Nov 23, 2022. This is a little play on words of our phrase. 


Wednesday's friends throw her a surprise birthday party. They mean well - but she'd much rather mark the miserable occasion by solving the murders.

End Quote

My favorite quote from this episode is when Wednesday Addams responds to her friend Enid who was inquiring why Wednesday didn’t like her birthday - a day that’s all about her. 

Wednesday says, 


Everyday is all about me. This one just comes with cake and a bad song.

End Quote 

Wrap Up

Quid Pro Quo is an excellent, simple phrase. I love things that have stayed in our language for centuries like this one has. And I love that it’s still being used pretty much the same way. You can’t get something for nothing… how about a little quid pro quo. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But in a nice way that just says… let’s be equal about it. Sounds pretty good to me. 


That’s all we have time for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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