Q Words

By Mark Nichol

Have you ever noticed the similarity in vocalization when you utter words starting with wh- and those beginning with qu-? Go ahead and try it now. Don’t be embarrassed — nobody’s looking.

Huh — your mouth’s moves are almost identical, right? But that’s not coincidental, because many English words beginning with wh- are akin to Latin terms beginning with qu-, and, of course, many English words beginning with qu- are directly descended from the language of ancient Rome. And others of our wh- words and qu- words have some conceptual kinship, too.

Let’s look first at the journalist’s keywords: Who is from the Latin word qui. What, when, where, why, and how, though not derived from Latin (they’re all from Old English), are cognates — words related to another by common descent from an ancient language — of who, which is.

In addition, quite a few words starting with qu- refer directly or indirectly to the concepts behind these basic interrogatives. Note in the etymologies listed after each term and before the definitions below how often the wh- words show up or are implied:

Quality (qualis, “of what kind”): character, air, or nature (“He had a bookish quality to him”), property (“The painting has an ephemeral quality”), role (“She adopted the quality of a mentor”), grade (“The relative quality of the two brands is indistinguishable”)
Quantity (quantus, “how much” or “how large”): amount or number (“The quantity of items in the box is listed on the back”)
Quandary (unknown; perhaps informally derived from quando, “when”): state of doubt or perplexity (“I’m in a quandary about that”)
Quantum (quantus, “how much”): quantity, portion, or bulk, or a subdivision of energy or matter; usually used in the expression “a quantum leap,” which technically refers to a submicroscopic event but in popular usage denotes a significant increase or progress
Question (quaerere, “to seek, ask”): an expression of inquiry, or something discussed or disputed; also, possibility “(“There’s no question of repairing it”) or objection (“I have no question about his qualifications”)
Quiddity (quid, “what”): essence (“The sculpture portrays the quiddity of the subject’s frailty”), or eccentricity or quibble (“Despite her quiddities, I like her”)
Quondam (quondam, “at one time”): erstwhile, former (“I heard from my quondam friend Joe the other day”)
Quota (quota pars, “how great a part”): a proportional share or limit (“They met their quota”)
Quotidian (quotidie, “every day,” from quot, “many, how many” and dies, “day”): commonplace, everyday (“Its quotidian lack of flair bored me”)
Quotation (or Quote) (quot, “how many”): something repeated or referred to, or the process of doing so, but originally referred to numbering (“Read the quotation from the book”)

Also, note quo (“in which”), which occurs in the ubiquitous “status quo” (“the state in which”), the less common “quid pro quo” (“this for that”), and “quo vadis” (“where are you going?”), based on a verse in the Bible and popularized by a novel by that name and its screen adaptations but seldom used by writers and speakers of English.

See the connections in the following words? Quiet is derived from quies, meaning “rest or silence,” as is while, which can also refer to a duration of time — a quantity. Quit (from quietus, meaning “free” or “calm”) implies the end of a quantity of time or action, while quite, in the senses of “very” and “thoroughly” — degrees of quantity — has the same etymological origin. And quiz may have a direct link: It’s probably derived from qui es, which means “who are you?”

Not all words beginning with qu- share these origins, of course. Quack and quail are onomatopoeic. Quaint, though stemming from Latin, is not derived from a qu- word. Queer is Germanic (quirk may be related), as are quench and quick, both from Old English. But one thing most qu- words share is some quality, quiddity, or quirk that makes them quite useful to writers.

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3 Responses to “Q Words”

  • Lena

    A nice mouth exercise 😀 Thanks for bringing the connect to all of us.

  • Sally

    ‘Who’ is not *descended* from Latin ‘quis’ – they are cognates, both descended from a stem ‘kwe-/kwo-‘ in the Indo-European parent language*.

    Your suggestion of ‘quiz’ < "qui es" is interesting, but unlikely, if only for the reason that "who are you?" would be "quis es?" Most lexicographers regard 'quiz' as an invented word.

    You forgot 'queen,' cognate with Greek 'güne – woman' (which gives us such words as 'gynaecology' and 'gynarchy)**

    *Not pronounced as 'kw' but as 'k' with lip = qween')
    ** In texts the Anglo-Saxon words are spelt with 'cw-' ('cwene')

  • Amir Bahmanyari

    Very interesting indeed. This concept has shown up in the modern Persian language as well.
    Since Persian is an Indo-European language, it has inherited similar etymology of words starting with a “Q”.

    Please see a few relevant words listed below:

    Qay (when?), Qoo (where is?), Qee (who is?), Qodam (which one?), Qoja (which place?), Qam (few in number), Qam’yat (quantity), and Qaif’yat(quality).

    Kind Regards,
    Amir Bahmanyari

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