QUID PRO QUO – When Latin Takes Two Different Routes

Quid pro quo

Don’t assume anything, especially when it comes to language.

Quid pro quo has been my most recent lesson in this regard. No, it doesn’t translate in Italy as “a favor for a favor” or when “an item or a service has been traded in return for something of value” as defined by Wikipedia. I was shocked to learn that the phrase always has been translated as “a disagreement” or “a misunderstanding”.  Wow, talk about Latin taking two very different paths.

My Italian family and friends have set me straight on Quid pro quo.

And, with quite a bit of incredulity and passion, I might add. There was plenty of both on my part as well. I studied Latin in high school for two years, and I asked how the literal interpretation of “this for that” could be interpreted as a disagreement. I was told, quite flatly, that there was only one interpretation and was reminded that Italian came more directly and more truly from Latin than any other language. End of discussion. This left me scratching my head and running to my IPad and my trusty friend, Wikipedia. And there I was edified with a lengthy explanation of how this often-used phrase evolved to have quite disparate meanings in English and in Italian. I had to dig way down in the page to be able to finally understand how the meanings could have diverged. Under “other meanings” is where the mystery was solved.

“To take one thing for another.”

Then, I understood how a subtle shift in a translation can yield a very different result. I could see how “a misunderstanding” could be born. I share with you this excerpt from Wikipedia, where it calls out the more faithful interpretation of the original Latin.

Quid pro quo may sometimes be used to define a misunderstanding or blunder made by the substituting of one thing for another, particularly in the context of the transcribing of a text.[22] In this alternate context, the phrase qui pro quo is more faithful to the original Latin meaning (see below). In proofreading, an error made by the proofer to indicate to use the original is usually marked with the Latin word stet (“let it stand”), not with “QPQ”.

In the Romance languages, such as Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and French, the phrase quid pro quo is used with the original Latin meaning, referring to a misunderstanding or a mistake (“to take one thing for another”) – Wikipedia

I’m reminded, time and time again, of the pitfalls of attempting literal translations from English to Italian.

Too many times I’ve thought it’s a mere process of translating word for word. Many times that works (more often than not). But, there are plenty of times where I’ve stepped into an embarrassing situation, like the time I was in a store in Rome buying a lotion. The bottle didn’t come with a pump. I knew the word for pump was “pompa”, so I asked for one, not realizing that, in this context, I was asking for a blowjob. Plenty of laughter ensued. Yikes!!! I hope I haven’t offended anyone by sharing this story, but it’s a clear example of how a person can land themselves in trouble when they haven’t learned the unique meanings of similar words and phrases in different languages.

Maybe you don’t use quid pro quo very often. But, if you come to Italy and hear someone using the phrase you can be certain they’re talking about a misunderstanding or a disagreement. Consider yourself fully warned!