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A literal translation of status quo would be, "the state in which". I think this touches on the present-day meaning of the phrase, but I think most would agree that it does not fully capture it.

I am interested to know how status quo got its present-day meaning. What is the logic? The best I can think of is that there is an implied copula, e.g. status quo sunt = the state in which (things) are. But I think there is more to it than that.

In fact, Wiktionary claims that it comes from the phrase in statu quō ante bellum erat. Is this true? Who first wrote or popularized this phrase? And how did the specific idea of a status quo ante bellum lead to the more general idea of a status quo as we now know it?

Did the Romans ever use status quo as we use it today? Or did they only use it in the context of a war, i.e. status quo ante bellum?

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The earliest citation given by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1602:

W. Watson Decacordon Ten Quodlibeticall Questions 174: The seculars are but in statu quo prius, and cannot be in a worse then they are in at this present.

This phrase, normal Latin as it is, appears to have been turned into a noun with its present meaning in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century, and OED gives a date of 1719 for its first attestation in English:

Compleat Coll. State-trials II. 211/1: The Impeachments, Appeals, &c. and the Incidents..should stand in Statu Quo; so that (as is already observed) the Status Quo (as to him) he again said, was to put him into a State of Liberty.

OED also mentions that Augustine uses it, but since the words aren't juxtaposed and PHI doesn't have Augustine's work, it's a bit trickier to find. At any rate, I doubt the modern phrase comes from Augustine.

  • Do you have any idea why status became nominative? To me status in quo or in statu quo would make more sense, but perhaps it was streamlined by analogy to the familiar form status. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 17 '17 at 0:44
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    @JoonasIlmavirta I imagine from normal use. The status quo is... preserves the correct Latin and still makes perfect sense. I think making in statu quo a noun would be weird. – C. M. Weimer Apr 17 '17 at 1:18
  • @C.M.Weimer, Iv'e posted an answer which should really be a comment on Status Quo / In Statu Quo. They seem to have different meanings and usage. – Hugh Apr 17 '17 at 1:39
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The Legal Dictionary gives only status quo and quotes Webster

  1. The existing state or condition of a situation or circumstance. Origin 1825-1835 Latin status quō: “state in which”

[pronunciation in American Legal Latin: short a]

There are two terms in English legal Latin (source Business Balls):

status quo: 'situation in which' current situation, normality, conditions unchanged

status quo ante 'situation in which was' situation as was/before (an event)

the second is variously, in statu quo ante, prius, nunc 'in the state it was before, formerly, now. (1602) and " in statu quo ante bellum" (1833) In Oxford dictionaries the a is long stēitŭs which differentiates it from classical Latin

[In the Domesday Survey, T.R.E. refers to the situation/ value/ ownership before the Conquest, id est Tempore Regis Edwardi]

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    Do you have citation for the bellum part? After the 1719 attestation and one other, the earliest the OED gives is "1833 Edinb. Rev. 56 436 The status quo was to be maintained in Luxemburg during negotiations respecting that duchy." – C. M. Weimer Apr 17 '17 at 1:52
  • @C.M.Weimer Thanks: I'll change it; In Shorter OED under "in" 16, a date -1602 - but no ref. – Hugh Apr 17 '17 at 2:08
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    The 1602 reference is the same one, I believe, that I included in my answer, and bellum is not in the passage. – C. M. Weimer Apr 17 '17 at 2:40

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