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

Martial: the world of the epigram, by William Fitzgerald. University of Chicago Press, 2007: The first recorded use of the word ‘plagiarism’ is by the Roman poet Martial when complaining, as he often had cause to do, about a rival poet reading out his verses and passing them off as his own. (3. For an extended discussion of the development of plagiarism as an idea, see my ‘“Plagiarism”: A Literary Concept in England to 1775’, English 56 (Spring 2007): 1-16.)

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.


  1. Vapor reviews -  September 14, 2013 - 2:25 am

    It’s enormous that you are getting ideas from this paragraph as well as from our discussion
    made here.

  2. Anil Kachhadiya -  June 17, 2013 - 4:22 am

    just copy-paste and change content using Plagiarism.

  3. Mr. K -  June 13, 2013 - 8:20 am

    Hi all Plagiarist;

    In my last course for a History Degree, I quoted a quote from a book about my topic, and I did not reference the book, but I did reference the original book that I did not have access to. I used the reference that the book I was using used, but not the book itself. I always wondered if I did this right, or maybe I should have cited the book I was using. Anyway, I made an A for the research paper.

    I post a lot on-line, and I am a terrable speller, and I use Dictionary.com all the time. In fakt, I had to use it 5 or 6 times to post the above little ditty. I normaly have Dictionary.com in a different tab, and copy/paste words I can’t figure out whith the Spell-Checker.

    I whish this site was avalable back in the ’70s when I was in Colage. I once spent 3 days of all my free time, working on correcting spelling mistakes on a History test, in the Profesors office. He let (made) me use his Unabriged Dictionary (search engins not invented yet). I got down to a list of about 20 words, that I snuck out, and got some help from my bad spelling roommate. Between the two of us, we got it down to about 5 words, and we resorted to asking random people how to spell the words. Even with this wonderful site, I aften have to change a word, or sentance, because I can’t get a word spelled right.

  4. pendantry -  June 8, 2013 - 10:53 pm

    Once there were bards, who sang; now there are b’ards, out for sang.

  5. Susan -  June 8, 2013 - 7:57 pm

    This piece is perfectly timed as a sit down to correct my Chinese students’ writing. I’ll share this page with them, though I doubt all will care. They mainly care about getting caught.

  6. Joe -  June 8, 2013 - 6:56 pm

    Blogchi is a weird person..

  7. Joe -  June 7, 2013 - 8:16 pm

    “Too narcissistic to take them to court?” That’s money I could have had!

  8. GingerlyWaysIsBack -  June 7, 2013 - 12:04 pm

    whys everyone so concerned with who said it first
    if you think it and you communicate it, whether it be idea, thought, etc. when people copy it, you have succeeded your goal right than and there…
    you don’t need money to prove your achievements.
    if you put something out there than let it be… good ideas are the ones that don’t change.. it is important to be influential because that means your efforts are the ones that stay alive…completely unchanged…

  9. A.Raslton -  June 7, 2013 - 4:24 am

    In the spirit of social harmony, of course, Martin Luther King’s plagiarism of most of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Boston is a verboten topic. Even though the university has acknowledged the plagiarism, it was deemed insufficiently “blatant” to warrant retraction of his King’s degree.

  10. Jon Jacobs -  June 5, 2013 - 2:20 pm

    The quotations at the end of the article fails to distinguish between plagiarism – an ethical/intellectual sin rather than a legal one – and the tort of copyright infringement. The first comment (by Brian Davids) hints at the difference, but doesn’t make it clear.

    Complaints of plagiarism – using another person’s ideas without publicly acknowledging the source – are rarely enforceable by courts. What courts do enforce is ownership of copyrights – which often has little to do with authorship.

  11. Dipendra -  June 5, 2013 - 11:36 am

    I like the month of June,but one thing i want to request to know the meaning of Densu & Dekensu boys name

  12. Bubba -  June 5, 2013 - 9:20 am

    One of my favorite self-plagiarisms Is Shakespears ‘Midsummer-nights Dream’ In which he thinly disguises Romeo and Juliet as ‘Pirymus and Thisbey ‘. A precedent if ever there was….but such a timeless theme must surely have been within ‘public domain’ since the stone age and before.

  13. (>'-')> -  June 4, 2013 - 10:44 pm

    Wow. How do you get sued for plagiarizing yourself? Do you sue yourself, or does someone else sue for you?

  14. Ray -  June 4, 2013 - 7:22 pm

    Plagiarism, is a challenge for the digitally handicapped (bad–pun)…

    With digital computers so capable of mathematical encryption, it’s one small step for mankind—to ‘Encrypted Filtering’ so deep that there are theories about it: metalogical doublespeak, Names changed to protect the innocent, and steal the prose, Dialog reassigned,… Computers will have to jump through moebius-hoops to find it—to prove it….

    Plage, means beach, so, plagiarism, means to shore-in something: e.g. to write similar phrasing that prevents the original author from furthering his/her own writing… like patenting everything around a given patent, to prevent its utility…

    One of the problems is the proliferation of Internet research, means that everyone will be able to -and have to- trace their sources… But—Which, source, is the source—the place where you heard, or the first to say it—Just try to figure that out when you look through history and find that it’s not clean in the first place; e.g. Elijah and Elisha were two gods back in Adam-and-Eve’s time: Elijah aka El Yah aka (El) Ea formerly Enki, and Elisha, the brother of Methuselah, famous for the Enuma Elish, which, through translation, became “When On High” (our “From The Top”) but obviously a pun (probably intentional) “The Account By Elisha.”

    Translation tends to make anybody say anything—if left to the deft ear.

    “Life’s a beach, and then the tsunami.” (Unas, Slayer and Eater of the Gods, 2345 BCE, re the sinking of Atlantis and drowning of a million in the Nile delta)

  15. PLAGIARISM | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  June 4, 2013 - 7:58 am

    [...] ‘Plagiarism’ reflected — So Over and Over again — Reposting rather not rejected — With the Splintered Webs insane — Who is what protected? — When marketing is responsible so plain. — So many commercials rewritten — While some live within poverty’s hand — Politics so Smitten — Overvalued incompetence on demand. — With ownership being passed back and forth so blatant – Collective consciousness latent. — Every idea is a gem when gazed at through a page or prism –  Until over drawn blood seems nothing more than reflective bait and switch Plagiarism. — Peace. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on June 4, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

  16. Brian Davids -  June 4, 2013 - 1:27 am

    The risk of the original producer/author of works being sued for plagiarising themselves is one I’m surprised doesn’t have greater prominence, particularly as most ownerships go to other parties. Maybe it’s just that most copyright owners aren’t narcissistic enough to take original producers/author to court. Might be something we’ll see more often though.


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