Etymology Usage

“Quash” vs. “squash”

Q: Any comments on “quash” vs. “squash”? I rarely hear anyone use the former. The latter sounds gauche to me, even absurd, in a sentence like “My boss squashed the rumor.” I would, however, accept “The landlady squashed the roomer.”

A: You’ve got good timing. When your question landed in our inbox, Pat was reading The Old Bank House, a 1947 novel by Angela Thirkell, and had just come across this sentence about a clergyman’s desire to quash a rumor:

“Though why quashed, he said to his wife, and not squashed, he did not know.”

Well, we would use the verb “quash” for the crushing of something in a nonphysical sense (say, a rebellion or a rumor) and “squash” for when the object is physically crushed (like a beer can or a bug).

However, both of these verbs were used for hundreds of years to refer to physical and nonphysical crushing, though “quash” seems to have lost its physical sense in contemporary usage.

We’ve checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries and most of them say “squash” can be used for crushing a box, a rebellion, a rumor, or a heckler.

But most of them say “quash” can be used in only two senses: (1) to set aside a legal ruling, and (2) to suppress or silence something, like an uprising or a rumor.

As we’ve said, we prefer to use “squash” for crushing boxes, not rebellions, but we could find only one usage guide that backs us.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says “squash” means just one thing: to flatten something by crushing or squeezing.

We had a brief posting a few years ago on “quash” and “squash,” but your question gives us a chance to update and expand on what we said then about these squishy words.

Both “quash” and “squash” are quite old and share the same Latin ancestor, though “quash” is far the older, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation for “quash,” a reference to quashing a woman’s lust, comes from The Owl and the Nightingale (circa 1275), one of the first long comic poems in English.

At that time, Oxford says, the verb meant “To bring to nothing; to crush; to destroy; to put down or suppress completely; to stifle (esp. a feeling, idea, scheme, undertaking, proceeding, etc.).”

English adapted “quash” from Anglo-Norman, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but the verb ultimately comes from the Latin quatere (to shake) and quassare (to shake to pieces, to break).

In the 1300s, the OED says, “quash” took on a physical sense: “To break in pieces; to smash. Also: to crush, squeeze, squash.”

Here’s an example from a 1770 ecclesiastical history by John Foxe: “A mighty stone … hable to haue quashed him in peeces.”

As for the verb “squash,” according to OED citations, it first showed up in a 1565 English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: “Ye must, I saye, teare them, rent them, and squashe them to peeces.”

Ayto’s etymological dictionary says “squash” ultimately comes from exquassare, a popular Latin derivative of quassare, one of the ancestors of “quash.”

When “squash” entered English in the 16th century, according to the OED, it meant to “squeeze, press, or crush into a flat mass or pulp; to beat to, or dash in, pieces, etc.”

But by the 1700s, Oxford says, it had taken on its nonphysical senses: “To quash; to suppress or put down; to undo or destroy in a complete or summary manner.”

Here’s an example from The Orators, a comedy by Samuel Foote written sometime before 1777: I therefore, humbly move to squash this indictment.”

And here’s one from The Water-Babies, an 1863 children’s story by Charles Kingsley: “Between crinolines and theories, some of us would get squashed.”

Check out our books about the English language