Meanings: “Plagiarism”

May 9, 2012

The blog Letters of Note calls our attention today to a letter from Mark Twain to Helen Keller in which he tosses aside the charge that Keller had committed plagiarism in writing The Frost King.  Says Twain,

As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

Twain is right about all ideas — or nearly all — being second hand, but plagiarism concerns whether we give credit to those others from whom we have drawn ideas or expressions.

“Plagiarism” comes from Latin for “kidnapper,” as tells us:

plagiarism Look up plagiarism at
1620s, from L. plagiarius “kidnapper, seducer, plunderer,” used in the sense of “literary thief” by Martial, from plagium “kidnapping,” from plaga “snare, net,” from PIE root *p(e)lag- “flat, spread out.” Plagiary is attested from 1590s.

Martial, by the way, was “a Latin poet from Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) best known for his twelve books of Epigrams, published in Rome between AD 86 and 103, during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. In these short, witty poems he cheerfully satirizes city life and the scandalous activities of his acquaintances, and romanticises his provincial upbringing.”

To avoid being guilty of plagiarism I’ll add I drew this quotation from the Wikipedia entry for Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis)


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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