Word Nerd: Quite Impossible, Really
8 months ago
Ho there, nerds!
So, been a while since you had a column out of me, but something came up on Twitter this morning which I thought would make a quite perfect Word Nerd, so here I am.
It started on Saturday, when journalist Holly Brockwell (who you should really follow on Twitter, she’s very good value) shared a Tumblr post about the word “quite” and how it’s differently used in British and American English: specifically, how it tends to be used in the US as an enthusiastic intensifier, and in the UK in a more understated, even backhanded way. An American calling you “quite clever,” it seems, is fairly gushing about your intellectual prowess, whereas a British person doing the same is slyly suggesting you’re just barely able to read without moving your lips. It is, in fact, a contranym.
My bookish Twitter feed caught up to the post this morning, and much of the reaction has been hilarity or outrage – including a few people from both sides of the pond who’ve just had a whole raft of prior exchanges with their transatlantic peers radically reframed – and inevitably a few people who knew about the disparity and were keen to offer other examples or context.
But what interests me (as always) is why this difference exists.
Quietus to Quit
The origin of the word quite is in the Middle English quit, which comes ultimately from the Latin quietus, meaning “to rest”* or “to absolve.” It came to English (via French) with the latter sense, and was used, for example, to describe paying off your debts (an ancient ceremony occurs at the City of London to this very day called “Quit Rents”), leaving a place, freeing a prisoner, forgiving someone an obligation or (most common now) resigning a job or leaving a group.
So while the original sense of the word suggest specifically forgiveness or absolution, it came gradually to carry a sense of completeness, of a thing finished.†
Quit to Quite
And it’s in this sense that we encounter it in the modern quite. Because the reason it serves as an intensifier in US English but as a diminisher‡ in UK English is that it isn’t really either! What it actually does, following the earlier sense of quit as “completed,” is convey absoluteness.** Consider phrases like “quite right,” still used on both sides of the Atlantic; quite in this phrase is meant to suggest that a thing is definitely right.
Quite to “Quite”
But absoluteness isn’t just exactly the same thing as emphasis (although it’s often used that way, as in literally). Absoluteness is, by definition, binary, not relative: if I describe you as “absolutely tall,” then I’m not saying that you are very tall, only that there can be no doubting your tallness.
And in some way this has informed the common (although not universal) British usage of the word quite: if a British speaker says someone is “quite clever,” they’re saying that the person is exactly clever enough that no-one could reasonably deny their cleverness, but no cleverer than that. Whereas the US usage has followed the path of absolutes like really and literally to become an intensifier.
An entirely fascinating example of divergence creating a contranym, and I’m delighted to have had the chance to talk about it here.
Cheers and see you next time!
*Sometimes, poetically, “death,” as in Hamlet.
†Perhaps echoing the above association?
‡I know this isn’t a word, but as far as I can tell, the word that conveys what this is intended to convey does not exist in English, which is utterly infuriating and I demand my money back.
**I’ve just realised it used to convey absolution and now conveys absoluteness and I’m delighted.