February 15, 2006

Quiteism

As I've mentioned before once or twice, the word "quite" has a different meaning in British English than it does in American English. In American English, the word "quite" means "quite," whereas in British English the meaning is more like "not quite," or "not really," or "sort of, but not very," "or hardly at all, really." Quoting myself:

The sentence "you're quite beautiful" [in British English] actually means "no, you're not quite what I'd go so far as to call 'beautiful,' though nice try and all that." This, as you might imagine, can lead to some dicey misunderstandings between a man and a woman if the (American) man hasn't learned the secret. (Let's just say I wouldn't recommend trying it: you'll have to trust me on this one.)

What appears to have happened is that the word "quite" has been used ironically for so long and so consistently that its literal meaning has been "quite" forgotten. Very few English people seem to be aware of the literal meaning of this word. I even once had an argument on the matter with a British professor of English, who had to be forcibly shown the OED entry (which is quite unequivocal) before he would concede the point.


Anyhow, I briefly mentioned this in a Suicide Girls post on another subject, and several British SG readers demonstrated the point by having no earthly idea what I was getting at:

The word quite means quite in American English? I don't understand.

The English English meaning is fairly [clear] i.e., "that film was quite good but I've seen better."


and:

"quite beautiful" really isn't that flattering, because let's face it... if I were told "you're alright, you're quite beautiful" it's very understated... and not complimentary at all.
Some American commenters explained that "quite" (to Americans as well as to the OED) means "extremely" or "very" (in other words, "quite") but I don't think the Brits "quite" believed them, any more than that English professor (who happened to be my father-in-law) did. Posted by Dr. Frank at February 15, 2006 07:01 AM | TrackBack
Comments

I've never heard that there's a difference. It's kind of funny to think what you could say to people, knowing both meanings or interpretations. I'll have to start saying it when people ask me what I thought of something they've done or said. What a polite way to put someone down. I love it.

Posted by: Amy 80 at February 15, 2006 08:55 AM

Once again, Frank, you're quite right.

Posted by: sam at February 15, 2006 09:16 AM

Oh dear, who have I offended now... (goes through mental tape of conversations from past year)

Posted by: Wesley at February 15, 2006 10:48 AM

You're right, not all British speakers are aware of this, but some are: my little brother's Oxford-bound girlfriend schooled me rather unequivocally on this back in the 80s. And added that a good translation for the American "quite" would be the British "rather."

Posted by: larry livermore at February 15, 2006 12:07 PM

those brits are quite stupid. im glad they can't get mad at me for that. USA! USA! USA!

Posted by: chris riordan at February 15, 2006 01:03 PM

Is the etymology based on constant sarcasm really true? If so that's really interesting.

Posted by: josh at February 15, 2006 01:34 PM

The Queen's English and the Yanks' English are so different these days that I have found when a bloke crosses the pond he/she often manages to adjust more easily due to the media influence from the USA but when a Yank crosses the pond he/she can often become most confused with the language due to all the slang and different uses of words.

Posted by: Zaphod at February 15, 2006 01:51 PM

Here's my purely speculative idea on this one: I think it may be a matter of elision. That is, to the British, "quite" is short for "quite nearly," whereas for the Americans, "quite" is short for "quite a lot" (new question: does "quite a lot" mean the opposite in Britain?). There's actually a similar elision in Ancient Greek (of which I still remember a few bits from studying it long ago), where you say "a little bit" but mean "almost." I wonder if the British usage is based on immitating Greek syntax, rather than on irony (or "litotes", as the Brits might call it).

Posted by: Nick at February 15, 2006 03:49 PM

Josh, that's just my theory, (I'm imagining it being along the lines of "bad" or "wicked") but it is based on a lot of observation of Brits and their behavior in their native habitat. The habit of irony and understatement is so widespread that they don't even always seem to realize they're engaging in it. Quite is my favorite example because the difference between us and them when it comes to quite is so clear, but there are other more subtle examples.

For instance, a Brit will often express approbation (genuine, at least in theory) like this: "this is a terrific chip butty." But he will say it in a mournful, "all is lost" tone, and shake his head sadly while he says it. The underlying message is, I do rather like this particular chip butty, but all the chip butties in the world won't change the grim nature of existence on a cold, harsh, dark, planet bereft of joy or indeed any meaning at all.

The message gets across to the other Brits around the table. They all shake their heads, sigh, and say "right..." in that resigned "we're all doomed, and how could a chip butty make much of a difference in that regard" type of manner. Situations like this occur all the time over there: the actual meaning is far more often than not more or less the opposite of the literal meaning, whether on the level of language or tone; that's pretty much the living definition of "irony." And it is done so often they seldom even realize what they're up to.

"Reading" Brits is really difficult when you're not one of them, and haven't learned the ironic cues from childhood.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 15, 2006 04:09 PM

That was hilarious. You're one hell of a speculator.

And I'm quite helpful:

"I had the same reaction when someone, loftily I thought, wrote that the movie Shakespeare in Love was quite good. The penny only dropped when he continued that it therefore deserved an Oscar. Quite was not a modifier, it was a superlative. It meant it was very, very good.

Now here's the curiosity. When I went to the bible of American English, Mencken's famous 1921 book The American Language, and looked up "quite", the master had written the very opposite definition. "

That was from a BBC article:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4252520.stm

It seems like WE switched the meaning. The funniest part is the British guy pulls the same routine as you from the other side using similar stereotyping.

"I can only think that the nascent English taste for reticence and understatement flowered in years of adversity - stiff upper lip and all that - while expansive America has always been in search of superlatives to express its boundless optimism whatever the facts may suggest.

So "quite" was expunged as a qualifier and got co-opted to mean very, and very, you understand, is the least approbation you can give and has to be tacked on to the chorus of terrific, splendid, awesome, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious by which everyday achievements are greeted."

Comparing how cultures compare cultures; it's like meta-po mo or something.

Posted by: josh at February 15, 2006 04:53 PM

thats jusy weird about thr chips butty

Posted by: chris riordan at February 15, 2006 05:12 PM

Actually, Josh, isn't he saying that Mencken used what is now the current British meaning, while the Brits of the time used it in our sense? And that somehow these were switched since 1921? I don't have a copy of that book, but I'd like to see it for myself: the ironic sense of quite as an Americanism doesn't "quite" ring true to me.

More later...

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 15, 2006 05:17 PM

Whoops. You're right, I was skimming. They both switched? Now that's weird. Seems more likely the author of this article is wrong or the 1921 book is.

Posted by: josh at February 15, 2006 05:42 PM

Wait. So when Commander McBragg told the story about the pond that froze so suddenly that his feet and the feet of every duck in that pond were instantly locked in, then, when the ducks figured out that winter had set in, they had flown south and he was taken with them, he was lying?

Thanks to you, I now understand a nearly-forty-year-old Underdog segment on a whole new level.

We knew McBragg was lying, but we didn't know he was telling us that he was lying.

"Commander, is that true?"
"Quite"

Posted by: Tim at February 15, 2006 08:10 PM

Thanks for putting the Commander McBragg theme song in my head. As Donovan would say, "Quite rightly."

Posted by: j.f. at February 16, 2006 03:21 AM

When using "quite" with a negative phrase, we adopt the British meaning. That is when we say, "She is not quite beautiful", we don't mean:

She is not SUPER DUPER beautiful.

we mean:

She is not A LITTLE BIT beautiful. She falls short of being a little bit beautiful. She does not aspire to the British 'quite beautiful'.

Maybe?

Posted by: josh at February 16, 2006 08:39 PM

I asked a few Canadian friends, and they said up there it's about 50/50 whether they use quite to mean quite or to mean not quite. Which seems quite appropriate for Canada.

Posted by: dave bug at February 17, 2006 07:20 AM

That's because Canadians enjoy the benefits of a transatlantic "double register" when it comes to irony. "Quite", here, can mean literally anything depending on intonation--look for the querulous note when someone says "Oh, she's quite pretty..."

For the perplexed, I recommend a viewing of the movie of James Clavell's "King Rat". There's a great scene in which Tom Courtenay (the all-time-definitive movie Englishman) explains to George Segal that when a Brit is asked "How are you?", an answer such as "tolerable" or "marginally adequate" means "terrific" and "bleedin' excellent" or "splendid, thanks" means "awful". The most typical answer will be a litany of complaints, which corresponds to the "neutral" condition (after the French "ca va"/"ca marche").

Posted by: Colby Cosh at February 17, 2006 10:10 AM

Frank,
Did you happen to catch the Playboy interview with Hugh Laurie in which this topic is addressed (Feb. 2006)? Remarkable timing!

uh, a friend told me, or something like that.

Posted by: marc w. at February 18, 2006 01:48 AM

Didn't the word "nice" used to mean something pretty unpleasant? It's all in the context. And "gay" seems to go back and forth, not unlike the behavior it so often describes.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at February 18, 2006 02:13 AM

We swing both ways - context and tone is everything. If it's wummin or their parts, though, 99% of the time quite means "quite".

Posted by: Fcb at February 18, 2006 05:55 AM