Zyra homepage //// Plagiarism //// Words //// Site Index

Plagiarism Etymology

Where does the word "plagiarism" come from? Origin and etymology of the word plagiarism


The word plagiarism means to copy someone else's work and pass it off as one's own. It's tempting to think the word "plagiarism" might have been something to do with playwrights, and plays, and so it's somehow play'gyarism. Or, alternatively, as the use of the word in a literary sense first started in the middle ages, the scourge that is plagiarism might have had something to do with The Plague, sort of plague'arism. Neither of these is the correct etymology. The word comes from a classical word plagiare which is to do with kidnapping. You can see Wikipedia has had a bit of trouble with this in the page because of their old page name http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagerism

According to the 1961 Oxford English Dictionary, the multivolume public library reference edition, plagiarism is defined as follows:

"Plagiarism: [f. as PLAGIARE + -ISM.] The action or practice of plagiarizing; the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another".

"Plagiary [ad. L. plagiarius: one who abducts the child or slave of another, a kidnapper, a seducer; also (Mart. i. 53. 9) a literary thief. Cf. late L. plagium kidnapping, plagiare to kidnap. So F. plagiare (16th c.) a plagiarist.] ... a kidnapper, a man-thief (obs)"

...and there are citations going back as far as 1601.

Now this is interesting, because clearly the term "plagiarism" had a previous meaning which is now obsolete. It used to mean someone who steals someone else's slave or child.

Such a stolen personage would then be put into servitude for the new master who's a thief. This makes the offence somewhere in the deplorability scale near to horse-thief, dishonest slave-trader, etc.

Then around the 16th and 17th Century, the term got reused and adapted to mean a literary thief. You can see how this fits from its previous meaning. A work of literature is something that's as if it's alive, and if it's then stolen and put to work for a new master who is a usurper, it's like the slave stealer in the older term.

Thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary for this! I decided to include it here because modern 2012 etymology definitions in some quite reputable online resources still don't have that level of depth in grasping the meaning of the older terms. They know the word derives from an old word for kidnapping, but not that it's about kidnapping someone who's owned by someone else.