Caveat Emptor

Photo by Stefan Rodriguez on Unsplash

My sister reports Latin-related Jeopardy questions (oops, I mean “answers”) to me, the former Latin teacher. She told me that Monday’s show ended with the category “Latin Phrases.” Here’s the clue: “Originally, this 3-word phrase referred to when a doctor or apothecary substituted one medicine for another.”

And here’s a hint. This same three-word Latin phrase was in the news in late 2019 during President Trump’s first impeachment trial. In that case, the phrase was used in its modern, non-medical sense. You’ve probably guessed the correct Jeopardy answer is quid pro quo. (Okay, “What is quid pro quo?) It means “this for that” or “something given in exchange for something else.” The impeachment argument, lest you’ve forgotten, was that Trump tried leveraging US aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter.

The situation was unprecedented, but it used quid pro quo in more or less its common modern sense. I give the barista five bucks, and she gives me coffee. It’s a swap, although sometimes the connotations are shadier than my Starbucks transaction, as we saw with the “perfect phone call” between Trump and Zelensky.

In ancient times, the phrase applied in a more literal sense. Physicians or apothecaries (old-time pharmacies) sometimes substituted similar herbs or medications, prescribing this for that, or quid pro quo. The ancient physician Galen (129-216 AD) writes of substituting one herbal remedy for an unavailable one and thereby saving a woman’s life. In a shiftier context, apothecaries sometimes switched medications to save money or by mistake. I had never heard of this earlier usage, common as late as the 16th century, before this week.

Take care, readers, when you approach the counter at your neighborhood CVS. Note that our word pharmacy, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from Greek pharmakeia, “a healing or harmful medicine, a healing or poisonous herb; a drug, poisonous potion.”


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1 Response to Caveat Emptor

  1. Pingback: A Humorous Post | Kathy Ewing

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