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A History Of 'Quid Pro Quo'

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I'm not sure if you've noticed, but this political moment has a lot of people using Latin all of a sudden.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No quid pro quo, as Mr. Mulvaney said...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's no quid pro quo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: King of denials about an explicit quid pro quo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: President Trump had ordered a quid pro crow (ph) - quid pro quo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: In other words, I'll do this, you do this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Why do you need...

: That's absent.

MARTIN: A central question that will decide if President Donald J. Trump is impeached is whether or not he engaged in a quid pro quo with the leader of Ukraine. So now that this Latin phrase has become so important, we thought we'd take some time to understand it, how it entered the English language, how its meaning has changed over time and how our own expectations can turn a harmless-sounding request into an implied quid pro quo.

BEN ZIMMER: In Latin, it just simply means something for something.

MARTIN: That's Ben Zimmer, and his job is to think about words as the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

ZIMMER: I think that the political situation can't help but reform the way that we're going to understand this particular phrase even though it's been in the language for, oh, about 500 years.

MARTIN: The whole idea of a quid pro quo is so fundamental to the human experience, we've got all kinds of ways to say it, right? - you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours - one hand washes the other - or those three letters, I-O-U. Zimmer says the first recorded use of the phrase quid pro quo in English meant something totally different.

ZIMMER: In the 16th century, very often, if you got a drug from an apothecary, what you would be getting might not be exactly what you asked for but a substitution of some sort. And so apothecaries apparently did this as just a regular practice of giving something that was close enough but making a substitution.

MARTIN: Instead of the quid you asked for, you got the quo. Sounds harmless enough, but Zimmer said it could lead to problems.

ZIMMER: Very often, the drugs that were swapped out would lead to someone getting something that didn't work as well or could even be harmful. And so this was a practice that people were scared of.

MARTIN: So that's where the idea of an exchange started. Fast-forward another century and lawyers start using quid pro quo ad nauseum. See what I did there?

ZIMMER: Lawyers love using Latin, and that was true way back in the 16th and 17th century, when quid pro quo started getting picked up to refer to an exchange of one thing for another. And again, that, in a legalistic context, could be very neutral. But this more negative connotation has always carried through that there is perhaps some sort of corrupt intents on at least one side of this mutual relationship. Perhaps the motives are not so pure.

MARTIN: If a quid pro quo, by definition, is something for something else, what about the word favor? Webster's defines it as a, quote, "gracious kindness." There's no mention of expecting something in return, but do we live up to that?

DEBORAH TANNEN: There's a quid pro quo built into every relationship, every conversation. We talk in a certain way because we expect some response.

MARTIN: Deborah Tannen is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University.

TANNEN: You know, if I want you to like me, and so then we might be friends or we are friends and want to stay friends.

MARTIN: So we may think we're doing a nice thing for someone just because, but we might not even realize the expectations we have for reciprocity. Tannen says we usually don't attach strings to the favors we do for family. Your aunt asks you to feed her cat while she's out of town, you do it. But the further you get outside that circle, the more complicated the favor becomes.

KATHERINE BESCHERER: I knew it was a big ask, but I didn't at all perceive it as an inappropriate thing.

MARTIN: This is Katherine Bescherer.

BESCHERER: And I am an elementary music teacher, and I work and live in Westchester County, N.Y.

MARTIN: About nine years ago, Katherine, who as a single parent, was taking her then-5-year-old daughter on a vacation to Costa Rica.

BESCHERER: We were off on an adventure, actually excited to go on one of our first trips sort of solo.

MARTIN: They got a car service to JFK Airport about an hour from their house. But when they got there, Katherine realized she had forgotten her driver's license.

BESCHERER: So I was like, oh, you're kidding.

MARTIN: So she called her neighbor and asked for a favor, a big one. Could she go get the license and drive it out to the airport. Keep in mind it's midweek, it's JFK, and now it's rush hour.

BESCHERER: And she refused. She absolutely was really sort of almost insulted that I would ask. And I was sort of mortified that she was so upset.

MARTIN: Katherine and her neighbor never really talked after that. There was this tension they couldn't get over, and neither of them tried to fix it.

Do you think in retrospect that you overstepped, that you assumed something about the relationship that wasn't there?

BESCHERER: I don't know. I just thought - I thought it was a reasonable - I knew it was big, but, you know, I thought it was reasonable as a friend. And maybe I expected too much from the friendship.

MARTIN: So that's how complicated things can be with a favor between peers. The whole thing gets infinitely messier when there's a power dynamic at play. And this is also about expectations, right? If someone who holds some kind of leverage over you - say a boss or your kid's teacher, a politician - if that person asks for a favor, is a quid pro quo lurking in the distance? Here's Ben Zimmer again.

ZIMMER: I think that that's just sort of a natural inclination of the way that - when we are in this type of transactional relationship, to think, am I really getting something of equal value here? Or am I being taken advantage of?

MARTIN: And Deborah Tannen says that how the tradeoff is articulated or how it is not is key.

TANNEN: That's what I think we're dealing with, often, in public situations where people are caught on tape, say, making what we all know is a demand but not in so many words. So they can say, oh, no, that's not what I meant.

MARTIN: So there's - there can be an intentional obfuscation.

TANNEN: And again, I would say it isn't an obfuscation if you know that's what the interaction entails, but it gives you post hoc deniability.

MARTIN: There is inherent drama in the quid pro quo. It's about relationships. It's about trust and power. It's about spoken and unspoken expectations. And it says so much about the human condition, which is why the idea is everywhere in pop culture.


JERRY SEINFELD: (As himself) There's two types of favors, the big favor and the small favor. You can measure the size of the favor by the pause that a person takes after they ask you to do me a favor.


ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Hannibal Lecter) Quid pro quo. I tell you things. You tell me things.


MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Corleone) Someday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me.

MARTIN: And now, because of the Ukraine scandal, quid pro quo is everywhere in our politics. And Ben Zimmer says gone are the days when it could be just descriptive or morally neutral.

ZIMMER: Now it's more like a shakedown. It's more like you have to do this for me or else.

MARTIN: Asking someone for too big a favor can end a friendship. Pressuring someone into a quid pro quo could end a presidency. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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