by craig on April 2, 2011 12:49 am in Life
The word “quite” in English is an extraordinary linguistic phenomenon because it has two meanings which are used in precisely the same way, as a qualifying adjective, yet mean precisely the opposite. To say something is “quite interesting” is to mean that it is a fair bit interesting, interesting to a reasonable and acceptable degree. But to say that something is “quite wonderful” is to mean that it is completely wonderful; utterly and without limit, stint or qualification. Quite can be the ultimate superlative or the deadest of qualifiers.
To try to analyse how we know which we mean is a very difficult task. All I can say is that, as a native English speaker, you get a feel for it. A couple of years ago I had a huge row with Nadira when I told her she looked “Quite lovely”. She thought I meant a little bit lovely, lovely up to a point. My efforts to convince her that I meant the word in an opposite meaning to the one she knew, ie perfectly lovely, were not an immediate success.
How did this strange linguistic quirk come about? Do the two meanings of quite come from the same origin, and do you get the same dichotomy in other languages?