Those of you who follow politics in the United States may be aware that last week a candidate for the Senate from Montana dropped out of the race after accusations that he had repeatedly plagiarized in a research paper he submitted while in graduate school. Where English uses the verb plagiarize, Spanish has the simpler plagiar. The word goes back to Latin plagiare, based on the noun plagium, which Lewis and Short’s 19th-century A Latin Dictionary defined as ‘man-stealing, kidnapping, the selling of freemen as slaves.’ Spanish has altered plagium slightly to plagio, for which English once again uses a longer form, plagiarism. In some versions of Latin American Spanish, plagiar can still mean ‘to kidnap,’ but more generally now a plagiario/plagiarist is ‘a person who “kidnaps” a piece of someone else’s writing, music, or other creative work and passes it off as his own.’
Latin had created its noun plagium from plaga, which meant ‘a hunting net, a snare,’ and that definition tells us the means by which the Romans must often have kidnapped people. Better that, we may have to admit reluctantly, than sneaking up behind them and hitting them over the head.
© 2014 Steven Schwartzman