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How being ‘quite wrong’ can have a different meaning to Americans

America's president Donald Trump. Photo: Alex Brandon - Credit: PA

PETER TRUDGILL on the curious confusions that can arise from the double meaning of quite.

Several decades ago, when I first took my American girlfriend home to meet my parents, she was shown some of my father’s paintings – he was a rather well-known local artist. She said that she thought the pictures were ‘quite nice’. My father was not too pleased, although he did not say so. To him it sounded as if his work was being damned with faint praise. Probably most other British people would have reacted in the same way. But she had not meant it like that. The cause of the problem was that, in American English, the word quite can be used rather differently from the way in which it is used in most parts of Britain.

Quite is a complicated word. If we comment that a film was quite awful, we are conveying the opinion that it was extremely awful. If we state that a proposal is quite ridiculous, we mean that it is totally ridiculous.

If we say that somebody is quite wrong, we are claiming that they are absolutely wrong. Similarly, if we react to something that somebody has said by responding Quite!, it indicates that we completely agree with them. But if we remark that something is quite nice, we do not mean that it is extremely or totally or absolutely nice, but instead that it is somewhat, rather, fairly nice – nice to a certain degree.

The anomaly of this situation is evident in the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us that quite means both ‘completely, fully, entirely; to the utmost extent, very much, considerably’, and ‘to a certain extent; moderately, somewhat, rather’. How can a word signify both ‘completely’ and ‘somewhat’? How can it mean both ‘to the utmost extent’ and ‘to a certain extent’?

To understand this, we have to look at language history. The word quite is historically related to quit and quiet. It has come down into Modern English,
via Norman French, from the Latin adjective quietus, ‘at rest’, from the noun quies, ‘sleep, repose’. (This is unsurprisingly where our word quiet also comes from.)

Latin quietus became quite in Old French, where it meant ‘resting, free, at liberty, clear’. Here we can also see where quit comes in; the adjective quit originally meant ‘free of debt or obligation’: in England we can still say ‘now we’re quits’, meaning that neither one of us owes the other anything.

In the 15th century, the word quite was borrowed from French into English and, when it was used as an adverb modifying an adjective, it was very easy for the ‘clearly’ meaning to extend into ‘thoroughly’. So quite brilliant came to mean ‘thoroughly brilliant’ – and quite good meant ‘totally good’.

The weaker and sometimes confusing sense of quite signifying ‘somewhat, rather, fairly’ arose very much later. It began to make an appearance only in the 19th century, and then only in Britain – the new weaker meaning never really developed in America. So when Americans say quite good, they really do mean ‘very good’, just as we would if we said quite splendid.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the change of meaning was a weakening from ‘certainly having the specified character in (at least) some degree’ to ‘having the specified character in some degree (though not completely)’.

This 19th century shift in meaning from ‘completely’ to ‘somewhat’ is not that strange. For an evaluative word to weaken in meaning is actually a rather common type of development.

Totally awesome originally meant ‘utterly awe-inspiring’, but for many young people it now means simply ‘very good’.

The problem with quite is that the change is incomplete: with some adjectives like brilliant, British people still use quite in the earlier, stronger meaning, whereas with other adjectives, like nice, we tend to use it with the newer weaker meaning. We can’t blame Americans if they find our way of speaking English quite confusing.