Negotiating in haste, and not at leisure

The roots of this common word hint that striking a deal can be such hard work.

Virginia Mayo/AP
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels on May 3, 2017.

“Negotiations” have been filling our news pages of late, as they often do. 

Negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union are under way. Bloomberg infers from a recent drop in the value of the pound that talks are off to a “rocky start” – even as British Prime Minister Theresa May has said EU President Jean-Claude Juncker is about to find out just how tough she can be. 

Those looking forward to an exhilarating fiscal roller coaster ride this spring as the United States government faced a shutdown were perhaps disappointed when a deal was struck on a spending plan running all the way through Sept. 30. 

On a happier note, the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood studios averted a strike earlier this month with a deal reached at the 11th hour – or maybe it was the 12th or 13th. 

Perhaps closer to home, the consumer pages are full of tips on “negotiating your rent in New York City” (yeah, right) and negotiating an exit package after a layoff, or even your salary for a first job. 

“A salary negotiation is a conversation,” a Florida International University professor was quoted as saying in a recent article from the FIU news site. “It’s a conversation with a positive ending, where we’re getting something and the employer is getting something, too” – although that last point may sound a bit optimistic to a lot of boomeranging Millennials emailing out résumés from their childhood bedrooms. 

And, of course, the new US president prides himself on his own skills as a master negotiator.

So where does negotiation come from, etymologically speaking? And why does it begin with “neg”? Can that possibly be a positive sign?

It’s not, in fact. That “neg” is the very same element we see in negative. In both words, it means “not.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces negotiation back into Latin, via Old French. There was a Latin verb form, negotiari, that meant to “carry on business,” but its meaning eventually expanded to cover “bargaining” about anything. 

No wonder “negotiations” are so often in the news.

And before negotiari, there was a noun, negotium, which meant “a business, employment, occupation.” But it also meant “difficulty, pains, trouble, labor,” and specifically “lack of leisure.”

And bingo! This is where the “negative” side of negotiation comes in. The verbal roots of all these words covering dealmaking, doing business, carrying on, even specifically “acting as a banker,” are neg, meaning “not,” and otium, meaning ease or leisure.

To negotiate is to be “not at leisure.” It is, etymologically, hard work, taking pains. Thus the thunderings from Ms. May – and her EU interlocutors, too. Thus the drama of screenwriters in their negotiations with the studios, or the job candidates in their efforts with their prospective new bosses.

And no wonder the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has found his work there a lot harder than he ­expected. 

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