Quite A Mystery 36

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?

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36 thoughts on “Quite A Mystery

  • Strategist

    Allegedly the "completely, absolutely" meaning dates to the 14th century, while the "to some extent" meaning only dates to the mid 19th century.
    The word is Middle English and yes, both meanings come from the same original word.

  • Mike Dobson

    Had similar experience working with Americans. American language = English plus inflation.
    If someone says "very good" / "that really good"- as I did to one employee – they look disappointed = borderline OK won't get fired.

    If your boss say "Great work" that equals good work.
    If your boss says "fantastic work" that equals very good, don't expect a pat rise or promotion 😉

    Understatement is I think an English cultural trait?
    BTW – Never tell any lady that her outfit is "nice" or "very nice" – Try "that looks FANTASTIC" 🙂

  • nobody

    Hmm… perhaps we might take 'quite' to mean 'to a sufficient degree'? In which case, this 'sufficient' may then qualify as a complete amount, perfectly and wholly satisfactory, or alternatively it's just enough to trip over the line and thus is nothing particularly impressive. It's a thought. Otherwise, good question. I wonder what Fowler says?

  • Suhaylsaadi

    Yes, as with many aspects of the English language, one senses that there is also a class dynamic in operation. "Quite" to most people now means, 'to some extent', ' sort-of', etc. "The film was quite good – it was alright". But its earlier usage, meaning 'perfectly', 'superlatively' now is confined largely to the highly educated middle and upper classes: "That painting is quite exquisite, don't you think?!" Non-native speakers, unless very knowledgeable in the mores of the language, will only be aware of the more recent, 'put-down' meaning – hence your diplomatic fracas with Nadira! I've run into not dissimilar problems with the phrase "I know". In common British English parlance, this is used as an acknowledgment of what another person is saying and stands in for "I understand", "I get what you're saying", "I agree with you". But for many non-native speakers, it is taken literally, as "I have the knowledge already, you don't need to tell me this" and so is taken as a patronising put-down! I've got into so many pointless arguments with my wife because of this phrase, so nowadays, I just nod (!)

    We know what you meant, Craig!

    • Craig_Murray

      Yes – I suspect that alright has undergone a similar transition. I am not sure when it morphed into one word, but I have seen Victorian uses where it plainly meant all – ie completely – right. Gilbert in Patience, I seem to recall.

  • Germanicus

    The difference has to do with the nature of the adjective it is qualifiying.

    Basically (and I speak as someone with a degree in linguistics) adjectives can be divided into 2 types: 'normal' adjectives such as 'big' or 'nice', and so-called 'strong' adjectives such as 'huge' or 'wonderful'. If we want to qualify a normal adjective like 'big' we use adverbs like 'very' as in 'very big'. We would not, however, say 'very huge'. Instead we would say 'absolutely huge' or 'really huge' ('really' can be used with both types of adjectives. In the same way, if we say something is 'quite nice' we mean it is 'fairly nice'. But if we say something is 'quite wonderful' or 'quite beautiful' we mean it is 'really wonderful' or 'really beautiful'.

    So it's another of those linguistic quirks which seems illogical at first glance, but actually makes sense and is quite (!!!) regular once you think about it!

    • angrysoba

      I agree with this. Essentially words that don't usually admit of degrees can be said to be "perfect examples of…". It would be strange to say, "a bit delicious" or "very delicious" but we can say, "quite delicious."

  • The Fatsnacker

    Hey, Craig how about an update on your new abode. Last time we saw pictures the new house it needed 'quite' a bit of work doing to it.

    regards to family


  • nextus

    The [Bill] Clinton Interview: a Panorama Special
    BBC1 Tuesday 22nd June 2004

    CLINTON: Well, first of all I support John Kerry. He’s a good man, he’s a good senator and I believe he’d be quite a good President.

    DIMBLEBY: "Quite"?

    CLINTON: Very very good President. "Quite a good President" – you don’t say that? I think he will, I think he’d be an excellent President.

  • ingo

    As the one who on a regular basis mangles the english language I shall stay quite quiet.

  • Mr B

    Had some some Dutch guests to stay recently – their highest complement was "that was quite nice" with a big smile on their faces. Hope they meant that they were very very pleased….?

    • Suhaylsaadi

      This might be a usage in which the word 'quite' is simply an amplifier of 'nice' and has itself been emptied of independent meaning, or it may be that despite the multilingual nature of most Dutch people, there's a difference between being fluent in a tongue and being able to understand the nuances. 'Nice' itself is a fairly contested word, much lampooned by 'serious' writers and so on – yet we use it all the time in everyday speech. In fact, without cliches, we would soon cease to be able to communicate verbally. So, yes, Mr B, I think likely that it was their way of saying, "My good man, Mr B, let me say that our sojourn at your abode was superlative!"

  • dreoilin

    There's (quite) a good page on Hiberno-English here:

    Largely of course the language spoken on these two islands is the same. But when I thought about it I realised that we use the first ("quite nice" or "quite interesting" — as in "ok" or "alright") but not the second. You'd never (or very rarely) hear "quite wonderful" or "quite lovely" from an Irish person in Ireland.

    Funny, that. Especially since it's claimed in Wikipedia (having discussed the influence of the Irish language on Hiberno-English) that, "The other major influence on Hiberno-English that sets it apart from modern English in general is the retention of words and phrases from Old- and Middle-English." (See Strategist above, who says that the "completely, absolutely" meaning of "quite" dates to the 14th century.)

  • angrysoba

    Hmmm… don't know about "quite" to be quite honest but there are quite a few examples of one word having opposite meanings such as "fast" (which seems to mean immobile as in "stuck fast" and also moving quickly) as well as two words which should be opposite but have the same meaning such as "flammable" and "inflammable", "habitable"/"inhabitable".

    There's a good chapter in Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue which has these examples. He also points out the "zeal" is positive but "zealot" is negative. "Counterfeit" used to mean "authentic". "Manufacture" used to mean "hand-made". "Nice" has gone through lots of changes.

    Recently, while watching Barrie Lyndon, I thought it odd that Barrie Lyndon's wife was said to have been driven "almost to distraction". Apparently "distraction" once meant "insane".

  • nextus

    More than you could ever need to know about the word "quite": http://www.answers.com/topic/quite

    Its literal function as a gradable adjective has been displaced in British English by a pragmatic idiom that seems to have emerged from a sarcastic quip adopted as popular slang. The title of the BBC quiz "QI" (Quite Interesting) is a play on this resultant ambiguity.

    Quite the little professor, eh?

  • Chater

    In Dutch, "kwijt" (pronounced roughly as "kvait") is an adjective denoting loss, deprivation or lack: "Hij is de boek kwijt" (Hai iz de book kvait") means he has lost the book / he is without the book / he has been deprived of the book. I suppose there is some etymological connection here, but it beats me how a Dutch word meaning "lacking" could have changed to mean to "absolutely" or "moderately" in English.

    • Suhaylsaadi

      Yes, that's the classic Scottish (esp. West of Scotland) understatement.

      "How are ye?"
      "Och, Ah've been worse."

      If one said that in North America, it would be assumed that something quite (!) bad had happened to one, or that one was a 'glass-half-empty' person.

      Mind you, one would have to watch to which 'hen' one was speaking, otherwise, "Yer no tae bad, hen" might just elicit a slap and a declamation, "Whit d'ye mean, no tae bad?!!! Ye hawf-cut tadger, ye!"

  • badgrammiticus

    I think that quite is an adverb qualifying and adjective in the examples you give.

  • Guest

    An infamous example of British understatement being misinterpreted by the Americans occurred during the Korean War at the Battle of the Imjin River, where some six hundred men of the Gloucester Regiment were attacked by thousands of Chinese troops. When asked for a sitrep by the US commander, the British CO informed him that things were, "a bit sticky". The commander assumed therefore that there was no need to send reinforcements or otherwise aid the embattled Glosters and gave them the order to, "Hold on where you are", Although they killed or wounded thousands of Chinese troops for the loss of just fifty-nine of their own, almost all of the remaining "Glorious Glosters" were taken prisoner. Two countries divided by a common language. Quite!.

  • Ruth

    'To say something is “quite interesting” is to mean that it is a fair bit interesting, interesting to a reasonable and acceptable degree.'
    Yes, that's if you don't put stress on the 'quite'. If you do then the meaning changes to become 'very' .

  • evgueni

    There is an awful lot of such ambiguity in the English language. It used to drive me nuts when I first started learning it. I assume other languages have idiosyncrasies of their own. In Russian and Ukrainian, some words can change their meaning completely depending on which syllable is stressed.

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