In Animals, History, Words


I don’t know about you (well, I do actually), but every so often a word, or rather its use, gets my goat. And I don’t even own a goat.

Back in the 19th century, in the halcyon days when Prime Ministers only lasted a few months and Britain was working on a rebrand of the national character from emotional, heart-on-sleeve firebrand to passive-aggressive, stiff-upper-lip introvert, the copywriting department was charged with finding a word everyone could use to articulate the new fashion for understatement. What they came up with was not a new word, but a repurposing of an old word: quite.

Until that point in time, ‘quite’ had had a very definite and positive meaning: ‘thoroughly’, ‘absolutely’, ‘exactly’. It came from the same source as ‘quit’, which originally came into English from French as an adjective meaning ‘free’ or ‘clear’ and was used to apply to things like clearing debt. It later became a verb.

We still use ‘quite’ in the definite sense today: “Quite so.” “Quite extraordinary.” “Not quite.” “He’s quite the most annoying Prime Minister I’ve ever known.” Or just “Quite” as a way of expressing total agreement.

But thanks to those buttoned-up, baggy-skirted bowdlerisers of the Victorian age, ‘quite’ assumed the wishy-washy meaning of ‘fairly’, ‘a bit’. And it became a device for expressing reservations. “I quite like that.” “It’s quite good.” Or, as my friend John the Dog once said after I’d spent several minutes regaling him with my impassioned views on the offside law or something, “Quite interesting.” By which he meant, “Not interesting at all.”

When I was young and tortured, a girl (and I mean girl) once told me she “quite” liked me. In that moment I knew it was all over. “Che sera sera,” I said, trying to remain philosophical. “Whatever will be will be.” She accused me of uttering a double platitude. I told her I thought that was an Australian semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal. I never saw her again.

Anyway, thanks for all the fig recipes. And the cider press, Stuart. Apple squeezing begins this weekend and I’m quite excited – by which I mean I’m absolutely beside myself with eager anticipation.

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