Daily Archives: December 14, 2008


Does this word have a wide range of uses? As is said in Britain, “Not half!” But all of them come from the same source: Latin quartarius, from Latin quartus, “fourth,” which unsuprisingly is similar to quattuor, “four,” and on back to the Indo-European root kwetwer-. It came to English by way of French, from which we also get related words such as quart, which is a quarter of a gallon. But how does a fourth part relate to some of the quarter words and phrases? One avenue starts at the use of quartier in French to refer to a portion of a territory, originally a fourth but of course these things can broaden in meaning; from this we get an area of a town, whence Latin Quarter and French Quarter, as well as the military use of quarters for sleeping areas. And so too a safe place for an army to withdraw to when lifting a siege was a quartier de sauveté, and if quarter is rest, relief, respite, or retreat, then asking or giving quarter is requesting or showing mercy – note how much more often the word no interposes in those cases, however. But is a quarter horse merciful or pitiful? No, it’s good for racing a short distance – a quarter mile. Meanwhile, in football, the position farthest back from the forwards is the fullback, and closer is the halfback, and closer still is the quarterback. Three-quarterbacks are not in it, as this appears to be going by halves, but eighthbacks and sixteenthbacks are also out of the question; this isn’t music. (And why, many students of music may wonder, is the standard note a quarter note, while a whole note is typically a full bar? It was not always thus. Look at older music, including older notations of still-popular songs – e.g., Christmas carols – and you will see that, over the centuries, the notations have gotten more fractional. I leave it to music historians to account for this. But forgive them if the subject makes them crotchety, and they address it with some brevity, minimize it, or speak with a quaver.) All of the above – along with the coin worth a quarter of a dollar, of course – lend their voices to the chorus echoing in the background whenever you hear or speak this word. But what else may you get if you listen for the echoes of other words and taste this in your mouth as you say it? It depends on how you say it, of course. Many in my country say it the same as courter, giving a light taste of court and core. More in line with the dictionary is the [kw] onset, which connects the word with oh so many Latin-derived qu- words, quite a few of which are quaint, querulous or quizzical or, simply, questioning in nature; this onset seems almost akin to a rising intonation. And why not? It’s not so far from the words we use for inquiry. What? You think not, perhaps? Well, what was, in Old English, hwæt – even now, those who pronounce the [h] put it before the [w], not after – and you will find in Scandinavian languages equivalents beginning with hv, pronounced [kf]… Velar stop or fricative coordinating with the lips for a following glide or fricative. Back to that Indo-European kw. Does that make Latin fours and fourths somehow inherently questionable? Surely it’s a mere coincidence of sound, like the one that makes Chinese fours so baleful. But sounds echo, and that feeling of pursing the lips while the tongue stops the back will always have the muscle memory of the times we would do it spontaneously… as when we may ask for quarter. Which, at the end of this long tasting note (with so much more that could be said!), I will give.