QUID PRO QUO – When Latin Takes Two Different Routes


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!



By |2019-01-19T21:47:39+01:00November 13th, 2017|Living in Italy, Speaking Italian|10 Comments

About the Author:

I’m an American expat living in Italy!


  1. Debra November 13, 2017 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Hello Jed!
    Very entertaining story and yes…I held my breath with every conversation I had when in Sulmona last month. The last thing I would want to do is upset someone! I can so see it happening. So far, no huge blunders, but I’m certain it’s only a matter of time!
    It sure was a head turning moment when I heard a mother yell “Basta Basta! to her young son. Sure sounded like “bastard” from a distance to me! Although it’s not quite the same thing as your story…it sure was funny until I realized she was only telling him “enough!” lolol

    • Jed November 13, 2017 at 6:14 pm - Reply

      The good news is that Italians are incredibly forgiving and are quick to laugh rather than taking offense. Of course, if you’re in the midst of a tense situation, that changes significantly and one’s choice of words is crucial. This is where I’d like to really up my game so that I can converse my way successfully through more complicated situations! Btw, I love hearing “basta, basta!” Like you, at first, I was a bit freaked out but not because I thought it was short for bastardo (a word you really don’t want to use in any circumstance). I was freaked out thinking they were really angry and something bad was about to happen!

  2. Michael Sheehan November 13, 2017 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    The irony is that you really had a quid pro quo and didn’t realize it!

    • Jed November 13, 2017 at 4:14 pm - Reply

      Perfectly stated! Yes, you’re right!

  3. Deb Vallance November 13, 2017 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    Sam and I got the biggest, best laugh reading this as we breakfasted this morning! Thanks for the smiles. Sending you hugs and love.

    • Jed November 13, 2017 at 4:11 pm - Reply

      Ciao Deb! So good to hear from you, and to know I helped deliver a few laughs to your breakfast this morning! Miss you guys! Love, Jed

  4. Kevin November 13, 2017 at 3:56 pm - Reply

    Very interesting! From now it will be a toss up between “Silence of the Lambs” and your post for what will first come to mind when someone uses that phrase!

    • Jed November 13, 2017 at 4:10 pm - Reply

      Glad you like! I forgot about how it relates to “Silence of the Lambs”! I got a good chuckle knowing my post will be remembered alongside such a great, but freakishly scary movie!

  5. Jill November 13, 2017 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Very interesting, I never knew that!
    You also have to be a bit careful when referring to a fig, a saw and a broom or sweeping! Xx

    • Jed November 13, 2017 at 3:12 pm - Reply

      Great examples, Jill! Hope you are doing well, and hope to see you soon!

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