quiddity

This is a fun word to look at, with its iddi like two torch-bearers side by side at a gate, and outside those first u and t – neighbours divided by the gate – and at the ends q (like a d turned down) and y (like the q popped). It seems strange and perhaps wants to party. But what is its essence? It does not refer to a ball game for wizards, or a quaint Newfoundland village, or a cephalopod, or some especially obtuse individual, nor is it a going rate for a cuppa. In fact, it has two rather different ambits of meaning. On the one hand, and originally, it refers to the inherent essence of a thing or person, its basic what-ness – quid is Latin for “what.” In this it has at times been opposed to haecceity, a word that makes me want to sneeze just looking at it (stress on the second of four syllables, by the way, if you try to say it); haecceity comes from haec “this” and refers to the this-ness of a thing: its present individuality. Haecceity is the particularity of a thing, what makes it not any other thing, whereas quiddity involves qualities that may inhere in other things as well and may define a genus. Haecceity was an important term for Duns Scotus, a very sharp medieval philosopher (known as Doctor Subtilis for his subtle thought) whose ideas and advocates fell out of favour during the 16th century; humanists used his name – ultimately persisting in the respelling dunce – first for sophists and hair-splitters and later for general dullards. And perhaps for digressers? Now where were we… Well, if you think the matter of haecceity a trivial point, a peculiarity, or a small nicety, then it may ironically be called a quiddity, for – here we get to the other hand, if you were waiting for it – this word now has been ushered into the company of the other quaint and curious qu words, with the help of alliterative phrases: quibbles and quiddities, quips and quiddities, quirks and quiddities… It generally refers to a subtle bit of wit, or perhaps simply a quip, but can also be a quirk of personality, something that makes a person sui generis… which would seem to be more of the haecceity than something of the quiddity. But we don’t want to get too subtle here.

One response to “quiddity

  1. I’m rather fond of quiddity myself. This was a pleasure to read, as is all of your work. I find myself coming here more and more often!

    On the topic of ‘q’ words and niceties, OED gives a minor or quibbling point as one (now obsolete) meaning of quodlibet, which as you probably know was originally a form of scholastic disputation, and later a type of musical composition.

    Not really related, except as a ‘q’ word: quidnunc.

    http://wordsmoker.com/2009/02/26/wordsmoker-word-of-the-day-%E2%80%9Cquidnunc%E2%80%9D/

    Keep up the good work!

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