quid pro quo

Quid pro quo literally means “this for that” in Latin, but when did it appear and what does it mean in English?

The catchphrase arose in post-classical Latin in the fourth century C. E. It first appears in English around the year 1535 in a translations of Erasmus’s Lytle Treatise Maner & Forme of Confession in the sense of substituting one medicine for another:

Poticaries and phisions do more greuously offende, than do these persones now rehersed, which haue a prouerbe amonge them, quid pro quo, one thynge for another.

This sentence was inserted by the translator and does not appear in Erasmus’s Latin original. The sense of quid pro quo meaning a substitution is now rare.

Quid pro quo meaning a thing given in return for something else appears a few decades later, around 1560, in the Hereford Municipal Manuscripts:

Only in equitie and concyence considinge that yor orator hath not quid p quo.

And the sense meaning the action of giving something for a return consideration appears in James Howell’s 1640 Dendrologia:

That alleageance is an act of reciprocation; as it bindes the King to protect, so it ties the subject to contribute, and by this correspondence there is a quid pro quo.

In American jurisprudence, at least, there is the concept of quid pro quo sexual harassment, in which employment, promotion, or some other preferment at work is conditioned on the employee performing sexual acts for the supervisor. This is contrasted with hostile-environment sexual harassment, in which an employee is subject to severe or pervasive, unwelcome sexual words or behavior. The term quid pro quo sexual harassment dates to at least 1982.

But a quid pro quo is not, in and of itself, illegal or unethical. We all perform them routinely. Most business transactions, for example, are quid pro quos—a purchase in a store where the shopper receives a product in return for giving the merchant money. But a quid pro quo is an essential element of many corrupt acts. Let us suppose, to take a hypothetical example, that an official conditions the delivery of authorized and appropriated foreign aid to another country upon receiving opposition research on a political opponent in return—a quid pro quo—then that would be bribery.


Black’s Law Dictionary, eleventh edition, 2019, s. v. quid pro quo; sexual harassment.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2007, s. v. quid pro quo, phr. and n.

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