The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Plagiarism’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Some words have curious, and revealing, etymologies. The origins of the word ‘plagiarism’ are certainly revealing. The meaning of the word is fairly well-known: ‘plagiarism’ means stealing another person’s work, especially their writing, and passing it off as your own. To plagiarise is to seek to get the credit for something you didn’t produce yourself.

But 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 another Latin word plagium, which denotes the act of kidnapping. This term was itself probably derived from the Latin plaga meaning a net or snare: that is, the object used to kidnap somebody. The Oxford English Dictionary adds more detail, outlining the origins of the word ‘plagiarism’ (in the Latin plagiarius) as follows: ‘person who abducts the child or slave of another, kidnapper, seducer, also a literary thief’.

So from originally meaning ‘kidnapper’ (in the literal sense, of stealing someone else’s kids or children), even in Latin the term expanded its range of possible meanings, stealing a march on other terms and overlapping with them, so that seducing someone (another man’s daughter, wife?) was similarly viewed as an act of making-off (as well as making-out), until the term, in time, came to be synonymous with all acts of theft.

But it’s worth homing in on that original meaning for a moment: to plagiarise, then, 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.

And this idea of plagiarism as being a form of child-theft is borne out by a closer inspection of Latin texts. Indeed, 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 to describe his fellow writers, whose who were not honest writers but literary thieves or magpies. At one point, he directly challenges a ‘plagiarist’ from Cordova:

Cordova, your store of rich olives is more
Than even Venafrum can boast,

You can vie with the best that are brought from Trieste
Or the groves of the Istrian coast;

Though Tarentum declare that her fleeces are fair
And unrivalled in texture and tone,

Yet they borrow their hue – but more honest are you
And content to exhibit your own;

So your fame you should guard by reproving your bard
Who is stealing my verse. I confess
That I should not much mind were his own of a kind
That would give me a chance of redress!

But a bachelor’s free from reprisals, if he
Run away with your wife, for he’s not one,

And ‘eye for an eye’ one can hardly apply
To a culprit unless he has got one;

So a robber may feel more incitement to steal
When there’s nothing at all in his purse,

And your poet obscure may be perfectly sure
That no other will pilfer his verse.

Of all of the writers of classical antiquity, Martial was doubtless not alone in being a victim of this kind of literary pilfering (and he appears to have had endless problems with people cheerily helping themselves to his work), but it was Martial who, among all classical poets, addressed the topic of plagiarism most fully and directly. And it is largely down to Martial that we now call such writing-theft ‘plagiarism’.

The word ‘plagiarism’ has been a part of the English language since at least 1621, when Richard Montagu asked, in his Diatribæ upon the First Part of the Late History of Tithes: ‘Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?’ Surprisingly, though, the adjective ‘plagiary’ arrived in the language slightly earlier, in 1598, when Joseph Hall referred to ‘a Plagiarie sonnet-wright’ (i.e., sonnet-writer).

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.

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