Monday, October 22, 2007

Word of the Day: QUIDDITY

Pronunciation: ['kwi-dê-ti]

Definition: (1) The essential nature of a thing, its character; (2) a trivial issue, a quibble.

Usage: "Quiddity" is a little oddity proving the fluidity of the English idiom. It is odd because, like "sanction" and "cleave," its two meanings seem to be antonyms, referring to the most important and the least important aspects of a thing. It comes with an odd little verb, too, "quiddle," which means only to chatter over trifles. Are you ever a quiddler? The plural is as to be expected, "quiddities." (For the relation to "quibble," see the Etymology below.)

Suggested Usage: Today's word is what Richard Lederer (Crazy English 1989) calls a contranym, a word with two contradictory meanings. On the one hand, it refers to the essential thing, "The quiddity of his intentions became evident when he asked if she would mind paying for the engagement ring." On the other hand, it refers to a triviality: "Irving is quite a quiddling quitter." This makes multiple uses in the same phrase possible, if not advisable: "Can we get past the quiddities and down to the quiddities of the issue?" That should send them off to their dictionaries (or you off to a mental institution).

Etymology: Today's word comes from Medieval Latin "quidditas" based on quid "what," as in quid pro quo "something for something" and a recent word in our series, "quidnunc." We have mentioned before that the interrogative pronouns of all Indo-European languages come from the same root, *kwo-, which loses its [k] sound in some languages and its [w] sound in others. The sound [k] became [h] in English, so "what," "where," and "who" all come from this source is Russian chto "what," kto "who," and kuda "where to." Latin maintained both initial sounds, spelling them [qu]: qui [kwi] "who, what." The dative-ablative plural of this pronoun is quibus "to/from what," which we find in "quibble."

Dr. Language,

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