plagiarism

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

24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Aug 15, 2014 @ 23:36:22

    It is interesting how “plaga” also translates to the similar “plague” in English, meaning exactly the same. “A plague of insects”, or “una plaga de insectos”. Nevertheless this meaning differs significantly from “kidnapping” of “plagio” or “plagiarism”. To “plague with” exists in English as a verb, just as in Spanish with “plagar”, but it does not implicate “plagiarism” or “plagio”.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 16, 2014 @ 07:27:11

      I didn’t show the quality of the Latin vowel here, but in this case I think I should have. While plagio/plagiarism is from Latin plaga, as explained in the post, Spanish plaga and English plague trace back to Latin plāga, with a long a, which was a different word that originally meant ‘blow, wound.’ The meaning of plāga changed in Late Latin.

      Reply

      • Maria F.
        Aug 16, 2014 @ 07:51:40

        I discovered the verb “plagar” exists also, for example: “la tierra se ha plagado de insectos”, but it’s rarely used as a verb here in P.R.. (Maybe in Spain) Yet we use “plaga” a lot as a noun, exactly with the same meaning you would use with “plague”, in English, and yes, I did notice how originally “plaga” with a long “a” meant “blow” or “wound”. But the meaning totally diverged with “plagiar” and “plagiarize”.

        Reply

        • Steve Schwartzman
          Aug 16, 2014 @ 08:24:07

          I wouldn’t put it the way you did in your last sentence, Maria, because to say that “the meaning totally diverged” implies that the two words were originally one. In this case Latin plāga and plaga were unrelated words that coincidentally got spelled the same (because written Latin didn’t mark long vowels).

          Reply

          • Maria F.
            Aug 16, 2014 @ 08:32:51

            But they originated from the same root word, which I believe was Greek?

            Reply

            • Steve Schwartzman
              Aug 16, 2014 @ 08:48:27

              Apparently not, Maria. If you check the American Heritage Dictionary, which I believe has the most authoritative etymologies of any general dictionary, you’ll see that the words get traced (in the first case tentatively only) to two different but coincidentally identical-looking Indo-European roots:

              https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=plagiary

              https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=plague

              Notice the difference. In the dictionary’s appendix (which isn’t available in the free online version of the book) the meaning of the Indo-European root plāk-1 is given as ‘to be flat’, possibly because of the way a net lies flat, while the meaning of plāk-2 is given as ‘to strike’.

              Reply

              • Maria F.
                Aug 16, 2014 @ 09:27:08

                This source implies the root “plak-” was involved in the meaning of both words:
                http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=Plaga&searchmode=none

                That’s probably what I meant when I said they borrowed a common root, but had a different meaning. What is a “root” word then?

                Reply

                • Steve Schwartzman
                  Aug 16, 2014 @ 09:39:38

                  On the page that you linked to, notice that plague is traced back to PIE *plak- (2), while plagiarism is tentatively traced back to PIE *plak- (1). Those are different roots that just happen to look alike. It’s common for any language to have two unrelated words that end up identical. For example, English has the bear that means ‘to support, to endure’ and the unrelated bear that is a kind of large animal. Spanish has the avión that is a flying machine and the avión that is a kind of bird (that English calls a martin); both fly, but that’s just a coincidence, and the words really are unrelated, as you can confirm at

                  http://lema.rae.es/drae/?val=avi%C3%B3n

                  Reply

                  • Maria F.
                    Aug 16, 2014 @ 09:45:59

                    Yes, I understand that part, but they are borrowing from the same prefix, although they mean something totally different.

                    Reply

                  • Maria F.
                    Aug 16, 2014 @ 09:47:45

                    Do you really think it’s mere coincidence?

                    Reply

                    • Steve Schwartzman
                      Aug 16, 2014 @ 09:49:32

                      Yes.

                    • Maria F.
                      Aug 16, 2014 @ 09:55:47

                      I think they evolved from that prefix, throughout history. But how is like a riddle.

                    • Maria F.
                      Aug 16, 2014 @ 10:21:15

                      “Plak” also seems to mean to “weave”, as derived from Greek. In the Wiki article it says:
                      “The derived form plagiarism was introduced into English around 1620. The Latin plagiārius, “kidnapper”, and plagium, “kidnapping”, has the root plaga (“snare”, “net”), based on the Indo-European root *-plak, “to weave” (seen for instance in Greek plekein, Bulgarian “плета” pleta, Latin plectere, all meaning “to weave”).”

                    • Steve Schwartzman
                      Aug 16, 2014 @ 11:14:18

                      Wikipedia is generally not an authoritative source. Notice in the Wikipedia article you’re citing that there’s no source footnoted to back up the purported link to the Indo-European root that meant ‘to weave’.

                    • Maria F.
                      Aug 16, 2014 @ 11:54:57

                      I know it isn’t, but apparently a Greek word is related, but I cannot look it up now because I’m typing from my phone, but it could be “Plekein”

          • Maria F.
            Aug 16, 2014 @ 08:46:37

            I know the words don’t look the same, but don’t they stem from one root word?

            Reply

  2. Maria F.
    Aug 16, 2014 @ 15:47:14

    Apparently, the Greek word “plaga’, means “snare or trap”, as you say. But “Plekein” is the verb form of plaga, meaning: “entwine”.
    http://goo.gl/s3Lm7n

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 16, 2014 @ 16:23:50

      Please note that the plaga I mentioned in the post was a Latin word, not a Greek one. Some old sources link Latin plaga ‘snare, hunting net’ to Greek plekein, but the current American Heritage etymologists do not. They trace Greek plekein to the Indo-European root *plek- ‘to plait’, which was also the source of Latin plicāre and its Spanish descendant plegar; the American Heritage etymologists do not connect Latin plaga to that Indo-European root.

      Of course scholars can and do disagree, and there can be ambiguous evidence or not enough evidence—especially as you go way back in time—to draw a conclusion. What I recommend is that instead of searching the Internet, which has many unreliable claims, you start with a printed book of high authority, like the Oxford English Dictionary or the American Heritage Dictionary.

      Reply

      • Maria F.
        Aug 16, 2014 @ 16:50:50

        Oh yes, I knew you were referring to Latin, but I do have a Greek dictionary. What I like about it is that the words are more ancient and there are apparently more variants.

        Reply

  3. Maria F.
    Aug 16, 2014 @ 16:19:18

    Here’s another source, tracing back to the Greek word, and the source Wikipedia probably used:
    http://goo.gl/iX2Noh
    With “plectere” as the Latin term.
    Yet “plectere” also means: “buffet, beat or punish” as well as “twine, castigate, and punish”, using the other root of plāk-2 is given as ‘to strike’, or “plague”.

    Reply

  4. kathryningrid
    Aug 19, 2014 @ 15:50:24

    Plagiarism is a plague. At least nowadays it’s often easier to spot, thanks to the interwebs and the silly, specious and misspelled junk that gets “borrowed” from it!😉

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 19, 2014 @ 16:27:09

      Though it’s easier to detect now with software and the Internet, some people apparently think they won’t get caught. One recent example is that guy who was running for senator from Montana and who had to drop out of the race.

      Reply

  5. shoreacres
    Aug 20, 2014 @ 21:30:06

    Mention of plagiarism reminded me of Jonah Lehrer, whose own plagiarism really disappointed me. I wondered what happened to him, and found a note in a 2013 edition of “The Huffington Post” that he was “facing questions about plagiarism once again — this time over his book proposal, which just netted him a book deal.”

    I couldn’t help wondering if the writer of the HuffPo article knew of the hunting net/kidnapping association, and was just having some fun. This certainly is a great example of how knowing the background of a word makes it much more interesting.

    You may have seen this fascinating and damning analysis of John Walsh’s paper that the “NY Times” provided. I can’t even imagine what he was thinking.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 21, 2014 @ 06:54:08

      Now that you mention it, I remember hearing about Lehrer’s making up of quotations supposedly by Bob Dylan a couple of years ago. In the article at your first link, parts of Lehrer’s latest book proposal do seem to have come awfully close to copying Adam Gopnik.

      I’ve observed instance after instance in which scoundrels who’ve been exposed put on a big apology act, wait for the scandal to subside, and then try for a comeback without ever having changed how they operate. One example that comes to mind is the obnoxious New York politician Anthony Wiener. His German last name means ‘cryer,’ and Lehrer’s ironically means ‘teacher.’ Hmm.

      Reply

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