As noted in my last post on deal, the agreement the US, the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia reached with Iran to limits Iran’s nuclear program took two years of intense negotiations. Certainly, the deal did not come together easily, fittingly enough for the etymology of negotiation.

Sword, aside. “Negotiation.” Doodle by me.


English has been negotiating negotiation since the early 1500s, adopting the word directly – or lazily, shall we say – from the French négociation, “business.” Early on, a negotiation named a “business transaction,” referring to political agreements by the middle of the century. By the end of the century, the verb form is recorded, apparently a back-formation of the noun. Today, we might also negotiate a turn; this sense of skillful maneuvering appears by the late 19th century.

The French négociation made a quick transaction with Latin’s negōtium, also meaning “business.” If you are working, you are not relaxing. This is etymologically true for negōtium: the word joins neg– (“not”) and ōtium, “leisure, free time, relaxation.” So, a negotiation is literally “not leisure.”

Also featured in English words like negative, neg– comes from Latin’s nec, an adverb meaning “no” or “not.” Nec has deeper Proto-Indo-European roots: *ne-, as you might have guessed, also means “no” or “not.”

As for ōtium? The origin is unknown. That long o might sound a wide yawn of leisure, but then how do you explain ōdium, “hatred”? That long o now assumes a different character, no? Alas, some etymological efforts are otiose, or “fruitless,” in an earlier sense of this ōtium derivative now largely meaning “lazy.”

That said, ōtium could take on some more specific meanings in Latin, such as “retirement,” particularly from public affairs. Some of the earliest usages of the word are military, referring to breaks in the fighting, which, in the campaigns of antiquity, might have lasted long winters.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword. In the case of ōtium, it might be more leisurely. Enjoying ōtium, the Roman might have attended to his or her personal affairs, or perhaps engaged in the more refined pursuits of discourse – of art and philosophy, just as we saw in my post on the origin of school, which derives from the Ancient Greek for “leisure.”

Today, we consider diplomatic negotiations as alternatives to war. Etymologically, that was true was the otiations. Either way, great things happen when we put down our weapons.

m ∫ r ∫


2 thoughts on “Negotiation

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