In a Word: Plagiarism — from Small Game to Big Controversy

Plagiarists are always on the hunt for something.


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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

In the time of the Roman Empire, a hunter might use a net or snare called a plaga to capture wild game, and the act of catching an animal in such a way was called plagium. The sense then expanded from snagging animals to nabbing people, often to be sold as slaves, so that plagium also meant “kidnapping.” Such a kidnapper was called plagiarius.

In the first century A.D., the Roman poet Martial was using plagiarius to indicate a literary thief, further extending the sense from a kidnapper to a word nabber. The fact that he didn’t feel the need to explain the word’s extended sense indicates that it was probably fairly commonly understood by then.

Plagiarius found its way into English in the 17th century as plagiary, which has been used in a few senses. Someone could accuse either a kidnapper or a plagiarist (in the modern sense) of being a plagiary, or someone who claimed another’s work to be his own could be accused of committing plagiary. Though the first two senses are obsolete, plagiary in the last sense still occasionally appears in legal documents. But for the most part we’ve said goodbye to the -y in favor of the -ism.

Every high school and college student is warned about plagiarism, so it may surprise some to learn that it isn’t a legal term in either civil or criminal law. One doesn’t sue for plagiarism but for copyright or trademark infringement.

Bonus History:

The word kidnapper has a history that is more obvious than you might expect. The kid part really does just refer to what was then a slang term for “child,” and the napper is another word for “thief” — probably from a variant of nab. A kidnapper, then, is a child nabber.

The noun kidnapper is recorded earlier than the verb kidnap, so the latter is likely a back-formation from the former — just like editor and edit.

But we don’t want to go linking those two groups, now, do we?

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