Lexical Investigations: Plagiarism

Plagiarism, MartialThe Roman poet Martial who lived in first century AD had a problem: without the protection of copyright laws, he couldn’t stop the other poets of his day from circulating his poems as their own. His only recourse was to write witty verses admonishing and mocking the thieves. Of one rival he wrote, “The book you’re reciting, Fidentinus, is mine; but when you recite it badly it begins to be yours.” He used the Latin word plagiarius—which until then meant kidnapping—and gave it a new twist so that it was understood as literary theft. The word didn’t appear with this meaning in English until fifteen centuries later, when Richard Montagu, the highly educated bishop of Norwich, was involved in a controversy over two similar manuscripts. Montagu, who was expert in Latin and Greek, no doubt found Martial’s sense of plagiarism very useful.

If Martial and Montagu lived today, they’d probably be thrilled by the abundance of new technologies that are making it easier and easier to catch plagiarists in the act.

Popular References:

In 2011, a German scandal over plagiarism accusations started a media frenzy: Michael Kimmelman, “In Germany, Uproar Over a Doctoral Thesis.” The New York Times, March 14, 2011.

“The trouble started last month when this country’s most popular cabinet minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a handsome, media-savvy, conspicuously pomaded 39-year-old baron widely presumed to be a leading candidate to succeed Angela Merkel someday as chancellor, tried to brush off charges that he had plagiarized parts of his 2006 thesis . . . Several hundred protesters hung their shoes on the iron fence outside the Defense Ministry in Berlin in a sly (again, typically German) multivalent allusion both to the now familiar Arab insult of displaying the soles of one’s shoes and also to the missing footnotes in Mr. Guttenberg’s dissertation.” He later resigned.

John Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing himself: Anthony DeCurtis, “John Fogerty Is Closer to Peace With a Label.” The New York Times, November 1, 2005

“But none of those actions match the Dickensian flair of Mr. Zaentz’s allegation that Mr. Fogerty’s song “The Old Man Down the Road,” from his 1985 album “Centerfield,” was an illegal remake of Creedence’s “Run Through the Jungle,” one of the songs to which Mr. Zaentz owned the copyright. Essentially, Mr. Zaentz sued Mr. Fogerty for plagiarizing himself – to the tune of $140 million. Of course, Mr. Fogerty had provoked Mr. Zaentz with two thinly disguised attacks on the album: “Mr. Greed” and “Zanz Kant Dance” (eventually changed in the face of still more legal threats to “Vanz Kant Dance”), which Mr. Fogerty coyly described as “a song about a pig.” Mr. Fogerty won the plagiarism case, with one aspect of it – whether Mr. Fogerty could sue Mr. Zaentz for reimbursement of his legal fees – eventually reaching the United States Supreme Court.”

“The First Plagiarists,” Plagiarism Today

Relevant Quotations:

“Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?”
—Richard Montagu, Diatribæ upon the first part of the late history of tithes (1621)

“Plagiarism further differs from piracy in that the plagiarist falsely offers as his own what he has taken from the writings of another.”
— Eaton Sylvester Drone, A treatise on the law of property in intellectual productions in Great Britain and the United States (1879)

“Another novel, another accusation of plagiarism. Except this time, the publisher is standing by its author.”
—Julie Bosman, “Is It Plagiarism? Publisher Says No,” The New York Times (2011)

Read our previous post about the word wit.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.