Plagiarism, the act of taking another’s work and passing it off as your own, has almost certainly been with us since the dawn of artwork and written language. For as long as there has been art and artists, there have been people who have put their name to it incorrectly.
But while the act of plagiarism is as old as time, the word “plagiarism” is not. The etymology of the word plagiarism is an interesting one and it’s history actually dates back to the first century AD and involves a Roman poet and his literary “kidnappers” who became the subject of a literary beating.
While no one knows the name of the first person to be called a “plagiarist”, his case has lived in infamy and helped solidify the name and reputation of Martial, one of the best-known poets of his time.
The First “Plagiarists”
The roman poet Martial lived from 40 AD to somewhere between 102 and 104 AD. Though he wasn’t an immediate star, saying that he didn’t care for many of his earlier works, by about 80 AD he started to enjoy success, which continued until much later in his life.
However, Martial, like many poets in the era, found that his work was being copied and recited wholesale by other poets without attribution. This was a very common act during the time as poets, generally, were more expected to be able to recite and relay earlier works than create original ones.
But Martial wasn’t content to stand by and let others take his work. Without copyright law or any legal recourse, he used the tool he had available to him, his words. He wrote several verses aimed at copycats, including this quip from an alleged plagiarist, Fidentinus.
Fame has it that you, Fidentinus, recite my books to the crowd as if none other than your own.
If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’t be mine.
However, it was in one of those poems that he used the latin word “plagiarus” to describe a seemingly unnamed literary thief. The term previously had meant “kidnap” and it specifically related to either the kidnapping of one’s slaves or to take a free person and make them into a slave.
In short, martial was saying that what the plagiarist was doing was akin to “stealing his slaves”.
That makes sense considering that Martial, as per the quote above, was less concerned with the originality of his work and more concerned with payment for them, something the plagiarists were denying him.
But while it was likely an off-the-cuff insult and comparison, the expression lingered. However, it would take nearly 15 centuries for it to make its way into the English language.
Translated into English
There’s a lot of debate as to exactly when the term “plagiarism” made the jump to English though the time frame centers around the late-15th century and the early 17th-century.
One prominent theory is that that it started in 1601 when Ben Jonson used the term “plagiary”, meaning kidnapper, to describe a copycat. It was a century and a half later, in 1755, when the word first appear in a dictionary.
This is interesting because the world’s first copyright law to focus on authorship, the Statute of Anne, meaning that “modern” copyright law actually predates the term dictionary entry for plagiarism by over forty years.
However, both the act and the rise of importance in the word “plagiarism” stemmed from the Age of Enlightenment, which put a much higher value on originality in creative works.
So what does the first case of plagiarism tell us about plagiarism today? Frankly, not a lot.
The values of what is and is not “plagiarism” back then were different and skewed. Even Martial seemed willing to be a conspirator in literary fraud for a price.
Like nearly all words, the word “plagiarism” has come to change in meaning. No longer is it even used to mean “kidnap” in any sense as that definition is considered outdated. Still it’s interesting to look at the root of the word plagiarism and see how the whole thing got started.