In English, quid pro quo refers to a barter-style exchange. I'll do this for you and you'll do something for me. There is this quote from the movie The Silence of the Lambs(1991) where Dr Lecter says:

[...] If I help you, Clarice, it will be "turns" with us too. Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself. Quid pro quo. Yes or no? [...]

Of course this is basically about the "counterpart" to a "part" so to speak, more generally a reciprocal exchange, one could almost say a bargain, "something for something" (else, but somewhat equivalent).

But in Romance languages, another meaning has prevailed, "to take one thing for another" or basically the case of the mistaken identity(based on Collins translating the French word "quiproquo"; see do ut des for the English meaning equivalent as used with Romance lang.); more generally a mistake. As it relates to human beings, a typical scenario is when a person mistakenly assumes a "doctor" to be M.D. when they are in fact a Ph.D., based on some confusion or lack of information, and then starts acting accordingly(divulging personal details about their condition etc.). One can see how such a "device" or situation can bring comic relief to a stage play for instance.

Is there more a expressive/colorful idiom besides the "case of mistaken identity" which would carry that idea?

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    I'm not sure where you are getting "mistaken identity" Quid pro quo means no such thing- it's Latin. "to take one thing for another means" you give me something I'll give you another something or vice versa- It's a trade. You do something for me- I'll do something of equal value for you.
    – Jim
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 3:53
  • I agree with Jim. I've never heard it used to mean anything close to "mistaken identity", regardless what the Wikipedia article says.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 8:57
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    I think this question would be much more straightforward if it skipped the whole quid pro quo tie-in an simply asked, "In French the word quiproquo means 'a case of mistaken identity.' Is there a more expressive/colorful idiom in English that carries that same idea? The English phrase 'a case of mistaken identity' seems to long and unwieldy.
    – Jim
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 18:19
  • re:preposition pro supports both exchange and substitution; @Jim I apologize for not making this clear, the edit helped a lot. Yes, that ending; on the wiki talk page they've had a go at this for 10 years lol. The relative or interrogative forms etc Pharmacists had an impact on the Fr. use vs. legal. Results vary. Thank you!
    – user16335
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 0:38
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    I understood the first part of the question as meaning "English quid pro quo is not a suitable translation for quiproquo. I'm explaining this to avoid any potential confusion". I think that was helpful to point out :-)
    – user230
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 1:34

4 Answers 4


In American English, a case of mistaken identity is the most commonly used idiom to describe this situation, though it is admittedly not very colorful.

Depending on the circumstances, I can think of two more colorful idioms which would fit as well:

If one is describing a situation where the mistaken identity has been exploited by the two individuals who have been exchanged, even if that exploitation is minor or brief, then Americans would often call it a case of The Prince and The Pauper, a famous story by Mark Twain, in which a case of mistaken identity opens the eyes of two boys in medieval England.

Or, if the case of mistaken identity is more about the striking similarity in the appearance of two unrelated (and unsuspecting) people, one could say they were separated at birth. This is more about remarking on an uncanny resemblance rather than acting upon that resemblance.


English equivalent of French “quiproquo”: I was looking for this answer here. Being native French speaker, I used to struggle when hearing "quiproquo" in English because it is typically what French speakers call "un faux ami" (using similar sounds in English to translate creates a very different meaning). From my understanding, the sequence of sounds "quiproquo" in English are in fact equivalent to our "quid pro quo" in French, the meaning described by Jim above. Reversly, "un quiproquo" in French is very different and means to me a misunderstanding, an error, a confusion, taking one thing instead of the other (latin source of "quid pro quo" or "prendre ceci pour cela" but not only in a barter situation ("sens propre") but with a figurative meaning ("sens figuré"), talking at cross purposes in a normal or funny context. Because confusions can of course be dramatically funny. Thus, the French word quiproquo is often used in theatrical situations: creating a quiproquo to make people laugh: so one actor would tell someone about something but because of the context the recipient will understand something very different, making spectators laugh. One of these "funny" situation can be with creating a situation of mistaken identity in a dialog. But confusion about identity is just a restrictive example. Saying: "In French the word quiproquo means 'a case of mistaken identity.' " is definitely an inadequate definition for the Belgian-French native speaker writing these lines. quiproquo in French has a much wider meaning. To the native English speaking community, is there a good all encompassing translating word in English that could also include the potential funny tilt? I will gladly take it against my good will in exchange. My "Quid Pro Quo" offer of the summer!

acontrario Brussels

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    Although this adds some context and explanation, it is really just a repeat of the question and not an answer.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 13:48
  • To the best of my knowledge, quiproquo, with the French figurative sense and pronounced more or less as in French, is not used in English except in discussion of 19th-century well-made plays (pièces bien faites). We speak of a "dramatic misunderstanding" or "speaking/acting at cross-purposes". Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 17:22
  • "Saying: "In French the word quiproquo means 'a case of mistaken identity.' " is definitely an inadequate definition..." - Someone else had that same line of though, and made a wider question and it's linked and here it is; imho it's misguided to try to find an hypernym for this, as you'll just end up with the generic "misunderstanding. It is indeed a misunderstanding/mistake about things or persons; and it's been highly influenced by the history with pharmacists making mistakes with drugs. Trying to render the person part of this here. Thanks!
    – user16335
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 0:35

Quid pro quo and qui (d) pro quo have obviously the same origin. They are Latin words. How and when the translation took such different turns ?. On one side, the French language , a direct emanation of the Latin ( as Italian and Spanish languages are ) , gave it that definition.: taking a qui (d) for a quo ( prendre un qui pour un quo ), meaning to confuse a qui for a quo, a situation which leads to a complete misunderstanding; as an example, 2 people have a conversation, and it take them sometimes to realize they talk about 2 different things. The French dropped the d in quid. Italian also , like in French, means , confusion, misunderstanding, " equivoco ". It has nothing to do with exchange of something , goods whatever... Ah, words have a way in crossing that Channel....


The proper Latin sentence for the common use meaning of Quid Pro Quo (I scratch your back, you scratch mine) would actually be "Do Ut Des"

Over the centuries "Qui pro Quo" that in Latin and in all modern "Romance" languages (Italian, Spanish, French...) indicates a misunderstanding, has become "Quid pro Quo" and the concept of substitution has become more of "a favour for a favour". This has happened so long ago (possibly 500 years) that cannot be considered an error in translation (even though it is) but the accepted meaning, even in common law.

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