In the musical ‘The Little Mermaid,’ Ursula the sea witch makes a pun about a “squid pro quo” when drawing up a contract to take Ariel’s voice in exchange for legs. In ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ Hannibal Lecter makes an offer to Clarice Starling: “Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things.”
Whether you prefer Disney music or horror films, you’ve probably heard or read the term quid pro quo. It’s another one of those common Latin phrases that has made its way into everyday English usage. But could you use it in your own writing?
What does quid pro quo mean?
In its literal Latin translation, quid pro quo means “something for something.” In English usage, it is something given or received for something else. It can also refer to a deal arranging this kind of exchange.
There are many common phrases that we use as synonyms for this type of arrangement: it can be an IOU, a trade-off, a back-and-forth, or the classic “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Originally, the phrase was a medical term that apothecaries used to reference the substitution of one treatment or medicine for another. Its first known use was in 1532. It was used if the requested treatment wasn’t available — the apothecary might make a substitution. Sometimes, these substitutions would not end in the best results, which could lead to the phrase’s somewhat negative connotation in modern usage.
How is quid pro quo used?
The phrase implies a transactional arrangement in which the other person owes you something. In an agreement with these implications, there is always the possibility of one side having corrupt intentions.
Ursula knows that Ariel wants legs more than anything, so she pressures Ariel into giving up her voice (which Ursula then uses for her own nefarious purposes). Hannibal Lecter tells Clarice that he will give her information if she gives him information of her own. He knows that Clarice needs information to aid her investigation, but he wants personal information from her in order to manipulate her.
In legal contexts, it often constitutes a bribe or another illicit exchange. It is frequently used in sexual harassment cases in which a boss suggests that they will make a particular employment decision in exchange for sexual favors. It’s often discussed in political situations, as well.
Perhaps a company or individual supports a candidate financially with the assumption that that candidate will back their interests in return. In the 2019 impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, allegations surfaced about a quid pro quo between Trump and Ukrainian officials regarding an investigation of the 2016 presidential election.
Quid pro quo examples
As you can see, the phrase can arise in many situations. Though the phrase sometimes takes on a negative connotation, its literal meaning is only “something for something.”
The young artist agreed to a quid pro quo with the gallerist: help around the gallery in exchange for a chance to showcase her art.
Joe is an excellent cook, but his roommate Daniel is a better handyperson, so they developed a quid pro quo when it came to household chores.
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