Etymology Usage

It’s not quite “quite” anymore

Q: When I was growing up in the 1960s, I was expected to restrict the use of “quite” to its original meaning: completely, totally, entirely, wholly. Now nearly everyone uses it to mean something slightly north of generally or usually. I cannot get over the deeply ingrained feeling that this usage is wrong, and that the reason for it is laziness.

A: You’re right in thinking that “quite” originally meant, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “completely, fully, entirely; to the utmost extent or degree.” But times have changed.

“Quite” entered English as an intensifying adverb around 1300 or a little before.

It’s thought to have come partly from an identical  Anglo-Norman word meaning without opposition, and partly from the rare old adjective “quit” (circa 1230), which meant free, clear, exempt or released from an obligation.

An aside: Apparently “quit,” like “quite,” once was pronounced with a long “i.” And like “quite,” it was used to underscore an idea.

Old phrases like “quit and free” and “quit and clear” meant completely free—today we might say quite free—of encumbrances.

For centuries, according to entries in the OED, the word “quite” was used in a variety of ways, but it was always unequivocal.

It was used either in the original, intensifying sense (completely, fully), or in a newer way that cropped up in the early 1600s—as an emphatic adverb meaning  actually, really, truly, positively; definitely; very much, considerably.

The weakness, as you see it, crept in at the beginning of the 19th century.

That’s when people began using “quite” as a “moderating adverb,” says the OED. Its meaning: “to a certain or significant extent or degree; moderately, somewhat, rather; relatively, reasonably.”

So “quite” went from an intensifying adverb (1300s) to an emphatic one (1600s) and finally to a moderating one (1800s).

Those earlier senses, however, are still alive, and this can lead to ambiguity. “Quite” might mean “certainly” in one sentence, “considerably” in another, and “rather” in yet another.

Here are modern examples of each, from citations in the OED:

Intensifying: “The self-praise and gross exaggeration … which we have come to expect from him had quite disappeared.” (From the Times of London, 2001.)

Emphasizing: “We could continue discussing templates for quite some time.” (From Programming Multiplayer FPS in DirectX, by V. Young, 2005.)

Moderating: “Five middle-class people and two elderly labradors. In a garage. I mean, quite a roomy garage—but really.” (From the Daily Telegraph, 2003.)

Finally, there’s a different animal entirely—the adjective “quite,” a British usage defined by the OED as “short for ‘quite a gentleman (lady, etc.)’; socially acceptable.”

Here’s an example from Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out (1915): “Mr. Perrott … knew that he was not ‘quite,’ as Susan stated … not quite a gentleman she meant.”

Also rarely heard here, except on PBS, is the British interjection “quite,” which means “just so” or “absolutely.”

Among the OED’s citations is this bit of conversation from Kyril Bonfiglioli’s comic mystery Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1976):

“Quite. By the way, I’m sorry to say ‘quite’ all the time but … my work lies amongst Americans and they expect Englishmen to say it.”

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