What is Plagiarism?

By Dr Oliver Tearle

What is Plagiarism? Plagiarism is, in summary, stealing another person’s work and passing it off as your own. The term ‘plagiarism’ is most commonly used in relation to written works, but writers often borrow words from each other without crediting their source. So the term ‘plagiarism’ or ‘plagiarist’ becomes a little less clear, and needs some unpicking.

The word plagiarism has an interesting, and suggestive, etymology: the term has its origins in a Latin word, plagiarius, meaning ‘kidnapper’. (Ultimately, the term goes back to plagium, meaning the act of kidnapping, which was itself probably derived from the Latin plaga meaning a net or snare.) To plagiarise was originally to make off with someone else’s children, which gives you an idea of how seriously the Romans took literary theft. They may not have had advanced copyright laws in ancient Rome, but they knew that stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own was wrong, plain wrong.

The Oxford English Dictionary adds more detail, outlining the origins of the word ‘plagiarism’ (in plagiarius) as follows: ‘person who abducts the child or slave of another, kidnapper, seducer, also a literary thief’. The term plagiarius appears to have had its origins, fittingly, in the work of a poet: Martial (AD 40-104), in his Epigrams, used many metaphors for the literary thief, including the philandering husband (who becomes a father even though he never sleeps with his wife, like the plagiarist who becomes an author without having responsibly sat down and actually written anything himself). He appears to have had endless run-ins with people pilfering his work, and it’s Martial’s use of the term that consolidated its status as the term for literary thieving.

High-profile cases of bona fide plagiarism in the literary world are relatively few. One of Dylan Thomas’s first published poems was plagiarised from the Boy’s Own Paper. This wasn’t discovered for over forty years. In the field of lexicography, the word ‘esquivalience’, which appears in the New Oxford American Dictionary, was invented by one of the editors to catch out plagiarists – the idea being that if the word, and definition, turned up in later dictionaries it would indicate that those subsequent lexicographers had cribbed their definitions from the earlier dictionary.

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, in their discussion of plagiarism, quote a statement from Goethe (pictured below right), uttered in a conversation with Eckermann (4 January 1827): ‘If you see a great master, you will always find that he used what was good in his predecessors, and that it was this which made him great. Men like Raphael do not spring out of the ground. They took root in the antique, and the best which had been done before them.’

To this we might add a couple of well-known quips, which despite being pithy witticisms contain a good deal of truth. First, W. R. Ince, who argued: ‘Originality is undetected plagiarism.’ In other words, no matter how original a work of literature may strike us, there will always be the influence of past masters whose impact on this new work is yet to be discovered. Second, from Wilson Mizner: ‘If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.’

All writers rely on their predecessors, and the plural ‘predecessors’ is key here: if a writer likes T. S. Eliot and only reads Eliot’s work, he’s likely to produce nothing but a pale imitation of T. S. Eliot in his own poetry. But if a poet read, say, the French Symbolists, the Elizabethan dramatists, and the medieval poetry of the Italian poet Dante, he might produce something ‘original’ in the sense that nobody had thought to put those particular influences together before. In short, you get an ‘original’ poet like T. S. Eliot. Indeed, Eliot himself observed: ‘A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.’

Eliot made this statement in his essay on the playwright Philip Massinger, just after his famous six-word pronouncement: ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.’ But it’s worth bearing in mind what Eliot writes after this, as it qualifies this provocative statement in somewhat more responsible terms: ‘bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.’ In other words, it is not necessarily that a poet takes another poet’s work and tries to pass it off as their own, but rather that, if done well, a poet can borrow a phrase or image from a previous poet and do something different with it.

Here it is worth distinguishing between the sort of stealing that is out-and-out literary plagiarism and the sort of ‘stealing’ that constitutes literary allusion. Allusion means to call something into play: the word is etymologically related to the word ludic, meaning ‘pertaining to play’ (and, therefore, to the board game Ludo, which simply means ‘I play’ in Latin). So a poet alluding to another writer may well quote that earlier writer without acknowledging their debt to them. Is this an example of plagiarism? (We discuss allusion in more detail here.)

Fittingly, T. S. Eliot, whose work is shot through with allusions to other writers, offers a good opportunity to observe the distinction between allusion and plagiarism. In Eliot’s short poem ‘Cousin Nancy’, written in the early twentieth century, he concludes with the line ‘The army of unalterable law’. This line is lifted straight from an earlier, Victorian poet, George Meredith:

Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

When a reader spotted the ‘theft’, Eliot responded by pointing out that his use of Meredith’s line was not plagiarism, because he intended the reader to recognise the line as a deliberate borrowing (Meredith’s poetry was still quite widely read at the time, unlike now), and to note the difference in context between Meredith’s original use and Eliot’s, which transports Meredith’s weighty line to the context of the mantelpiece in a New England drawing room.

In other words, the plagiarist wants to get away with their theft and hope nobody spots that their wares are less than new; the poet who alludes to another’s work, as Eliot does here, wants to be ‘found out’. And this is why the phrase ‘intention to deceive’ is often coupled with the term ‘plagiarism’.

Goethe’s statement that all great masters rely on the work of previous artists is something that Eliot himself would echo in his famous 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Eliot argued that we only know more than our predecessors because of the work our predecessors did, which the next generation takes up and develops. Isaac Newton’s famous statement, subsequently culled by the rock group Oasis and the makers of £2 coins in the UK – ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants’ – is another famous expression of this sentiment. Fittingly, Newton borrowed this phrase from an earlier Giant, the medieval philosopher Bernard of Chartres.

Another word for a plagiarist is a ‘brain-sucker’; the word’s first recorded appearance in print (in 1781) was in reference to booksellers, probably because booksellers in the eighteenth century were often also publishers, who funded the printing of a book. And before copyright laws were firmed up in the nineteenth century (Charles Dickens travelled to the United States in the first instance to try to do something about the unauthorised editions of his books being printed in America), it was common for booksellers to produce pirated editions of a writer’s work, which might be published anonymously or else attributed to someone else.

So, in summary, plagiarism often involves the conscious intent to deceive, to pass off another person’s writing as one’s own and to gain credit for it. This needs to be distinguished from both allusion (the deliberate calling into play of another’s work, within your own composition, for literary effect) and imitation (whereby numerous influences can be seen at work in a composition, but wholesale phrases and images are not simply being copied with the intent to deceive). Submitting someone else’s work as your own at school, college, or university is a clear example of plagiarism.

The novelist Michael Crichton, when studying English at Harvard, once submitted an essay by George Orwell for one of his assignments, because he wanted to test one of his professors (whom Crichton considered poorly read). When the essay received a lowly B-, with Crichton’s plagiarism undetected, the future novelist took this as a sign that he should switch from an English major to Anthropology.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

3 thoughts on “What is Plagiarism?”

  1. And then there’s the curious case of self-plagiarism, as when Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty had changed labels and was sued for plagiarizing his own songs (1980s) because his new songs sounded like — well, his old songs :)

  2. Curious cases #2 and 3 (Fogerty was #1). I often hear teenagers today say that plagiarizing is so common that students don’t even know when they’re crossing the line – it’s just something everyone does. However, when asked if it’s something they would share with the teacher, as in, “You marked this sentence wrong but I copied it straight from the Internet,” I find they generally DO know the line but don’t want to admit it 😊. On the other hand, a discourse community in which plagiarism (as defined in the humanities) is acceptable is technical writing. I ran a small tech writing department for ten years, and EVERY time you needed a design document or a test procedure for a new device, you’d look for an example in the existing literature to use as a template – starting with your own company but much swapping with other companies I worked with and samples pulled from the Internet. Sans plagiarism, the whole tech writing industry would collapse, as each tech writer tried to reinvent the wheel every day 😊 (Sorry for talking so much. It’s just your posts are so stimulating 😊)

  3. This may well be one of your finest posts! I certainly enjoyed every sentence, right to the very end. I’m highly amused (and a little encouraged) that Orwell received a B- (albeit, indirectly). What a superb mound of information here – forgive me in advance if I verbally ‘plagiarise’ as I bore friends and family incessantly with all this!


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