Q in English Words

By Maeve Maddox

A convention of English spelling is that the letter q is followed by the letter u.

Very few English words omit the u after q. The most common that come to mind are foreign place names like Iraq and Qatar, and made-up words like qwerty, Nasdaq, Compaq and Qantas.

In borrowings from languages in which the native q represents a sound unlike the sounds represented by English q, the q is usually anglicized to a k or a c:

Qaballah>Cabbala
Quran>Koran
faqir>fakir

Cabbala/Kabbalah: The name given in post-biblical Hebrew to the oral tradition handed down from Moses to the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Koran: The sacred book of the Muslims, consisting of revelations orally delivered at intervals by Muhammad and collected in writing after his death.

fakir: Properly an indigent person, but specially applied to a Mahommedan religious mendicant, and then loosely, and inaccurately, to Hindu devotees and naked ascetics’ (Yule).

Note: The AP Stylebook, founded 1953, changed its previously recommended spelling Koran to Quran in 2000. At the same time it changed the recommended spelling from Mohammed to Muhammad. Another earlier spelling was Mahommed, as in the OED definition for fakir given above.

The most frequent pronunciation of qu is [kw], as in queen:

acquire acquit aquatic aqueous aquifer
banquet bequest
enquire equal equine equinox esquire
inquest inquire
jonquil
liquefy liquid
obloquy obsequy
prequel
quack quaff quadrant quail Quaker qualify quality quantum quarrel quarter
quartet quell quibble quiet quilt quinine quintet quip quirk
request requiem require requite
sequel sequin sequoia squab squalid squall squalor square squash squat squawk
vanquish

The second most frequent pronunciation of qu is [k], is found (mostly) in French borrowings:

antique
barque bisque bouquet briquet
clique conquer croquet
lacquer liqueur liquor
marquee masque mosque
oblique opaque
parquet picque
queue quiche

The Spanish borrowing quinoa appeared in English as early as 1598, spelled quinua. The earliest example in the OED of the spelling quinoa is dated 1758.

Quinoa is a plant related to spinach. It enjoys popularity among the health-conscious because of its high protein content and lack of gluten. The OED lists four pronunciations, two British and two American. I’ve heard it pronounced KEEN-wah, KIN-wah, and Kwi-NO-ah. Those in the know call it KEEN-wah.

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14 Responses to “Q in English Words”

  • Chris Bailey

    Help me out! I would have placed queue in the QU as in queen section, and added quay to the QU as in quiche section.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The trademark word “Qantas” is not a purely “made-up” word, but rather it is an acronym that had become a proper noun:
    QANTAS is the acronym for “Queensland And Northern Territories Air Service”, and if you will notice the word as it is painted on the aircraft, it is written in all capitals – QANTAS.
    Naturally, as the years went by, QANTAS became a national airline in Australia, and then THE international airline of Australia.

    In a similar situation, Delta Air Lines of the United States started out small, as an airline that served the “Mississippi Delta” area of Louisiana and Mississippi, and then it grew and grew into a big airline which serves most of the United States and which flies over the Atlantic Ocean to England and Germany, too. Its symbol of the capital Greek letter delta is something of a coincidence.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have seen publications about the country that is located in Mesopotamia in which its name is spelled “Irak” instead of “Iraq”.

    It is just a variation in spelling, such as writing “Argentinia” or “The Argentine” – where the latter version is just about obsolete, but not quite. D.A.W.

  • David Pinto

    The most correct version of the spelling of the Holy Book of Islam is
    Qur’an.

  • venqax

    What kind of rube would use a Q without a U.

    Picque?

    Spellings like Irak are really preferable. The terminal Q is a French spelling and there is no reason Anglophones should use French to refer to country that speaks Arabic and where French is no more native than English is. I don’t know why English does this kind of thing so often. Some kind of insular inferiority complex? Same goes for this sudden affectation to call Ivory Coast “Cote d’Ivoire”. That’s it’s name in French. But I’m not speaking French.

    As to quinoa, same thing: KEEN-wah would be close to the Spanish pronunciation, but we are not speaking Spanish. KWIN-oh-ah would be the English pronunciation of the word. KIN-oh-ah is the “middle” ground that is heard most often and by the very fact that it is appropriate to neither language, seems to deserve condemnation.

  • Maeve

    Chris,
    There’s no [qw] sound in “queue” ([kju] rhymes with “few”).

    I forgot about “quay” [kee].

  • Heather

    According to Rabbi Joe Telushkin, “Kabbalah is the name applied to the whole range of Jewish mystical activity. While codes of Jewish law focus on what it is God wants from man, kabbalah tries to penetrate deeper, to God’s essence itself.”

    What you’ve described is typically referred to as the Mishnah and Gemarrah. Kaballah is a component of the Mishnah.

  • venqax

    In borrowings from languages in which the native q represents a sound unlike the sounds represented by English q, the q is usually anglicized to a k or a c.

    and

    The most correct version of the spelling of the Holy Book of Islam is Qur’an.

    We have to realize, though, that there is nothing really native about the Q, nor is it necessarily true that Qur’an it the “correct” spelling. In all the examples the letter Q is being used as a stand-in for languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet. Transcribing Hebrew or Arabic, e.g., requires using Latin symbols to represent sounds that don’t exist in most European languages, or specifically in English. The Q in that case represents something like a K sound, but not exactly a K sound.

    There are various systems used to render Arabic writing using our alphabet. One of those systems gives you Qur’an. That one seems to be the most common right now, but there are others. Remember the unfortunate Mr. Qaddafi, Khaddafi, Ghaddafi. All the same guy.

  • Angela Booth

    I second the kudos on getting QANTAS correct; I’ve lost count of the number of books and articles where it’s spelled “Quantas”. QANTAS is an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, not a title, yet even in Australia it often appears as “Quantas”. What are they teaching kids these days… (sigh.) 🙂

    Apropos of “qu”, and veering off the point slightly… I’m irritated at the number of times “piqued my interest” has become “peaked my interest” in books and articles. In fiction, “peak” for “pique” seems to appear as often in traditionally published novels (where you’d assume they hired a professional editor) as it does in self-published works. I’m not maligning self-publishers, at all. Just sorry that “pique” seems to be losing ground to “peak.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I don’t know the exact legalities of it, but I would call QANTAS a trademark, just like the registered trademarks in the United States and Canada such as {Coca Cola, Cisco Systems, Royal Caribbean, RCA, MCI, Catepillar, Cummings Diesel}, a few of which might not be in use right now.
    Notice anything that those names have in common? It was my arbitrary choice, and nothing meaningful.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree that when words have been transliterated from one alphabet to another, there is always an element of arbitrariness, and to say that “this one” is the correct one is a foolish distinction.
    This becomes prominent in Russian, Chinese, and Japanese names and trademarks.
    The great Russian chemist: Mendeleev or Mendeleyev, etc.
    The great Russian mathematician: Chebychev, Tchebysheff, Tchebyshev, etc. I have been told that some of the difference lies in whether his name was transliterated into French first, or German first, and then spelled in English.

    I saw a TV interview with two distinguished representatives of a great Chinese university, and they said that it was FOUNDED as “Peking University”, and that as far as they were concerned, this was still the way to spell its name in English, and to the Devil with “Beijing Univesity”.

    In Japan, the famous electronics company Sony (or SONY) was founded with its name spelled this way in Latin letters. I heard that in an interview with the founder – a man who speaks English reasonably well. Why “Sony”? He said that he simply liked the sound of it. It sounded happy, cheerful, friendly to him.

    Dale

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is a reporter for one of the major American TV networks who is a native of the Persian Gulf region. She speaks both Arabic and English quite fluently. On TV, she told us that the pronunciation of the name “Qatar” is actually closest to “Cutter” in English.

    Yes, “cutter”, just like the kind of a ship or the kind of a criminal with a knife. (We want to stay clear of the latter.)
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Even worse than those who write “pique” and “peak”:
    There are those who spell it as “peek”, as in “That peeks my interest.”
    Yikes! D.A.W.

  • AnWulf

    I think it would be close as to whether the most often way to say ‘qu’ is as ‘qw’. In AmE there are a lot of Spanish words where it is said as ‘k’ like ‘mosquito’.

    Some words hav an variant spelling (old but still around) with ‘k’ such as mosk and even brusk.

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