The Many Meanings of Quarter

By Mark Nichol

The word quarter has numerous senses as a noun, verb, and adjective, is the basis of several words beginning with quarter, and shares an origin with quart.

Quart and quarter come from Latin by way of French; in Latin, quartus means “the fourth”; it is cognate with four. Quart came to mean “one-fourth of a gallon,” while quarter refers to one of four (usually) equal parts of a whole. Quarter often pertains, with no further description, to one-fourth of a year, often in business and especially financial contexts but also in terms of one of four segments of a school year, or to one of four periods of equal length that together constitute the duration of an athletic competition or other game.

The word also refers to a compass point or direction other than north, south, east, or west or to one-fourth of the horizon or the area beneath it. In addition, it may apply to a district within a municipality or to the people living there, though the term is not precise; such a quarter may be much larger or, more commonly, much smaller than one-fourth of the city or town’s area. Quarters, the plural form, pertains to one’s living accommodations, to an assigned post or station, or to assembly of a ship’s crew.

Speaking of ships, either side of the stern, or rear, of a ship is called a quarter, and the deck at the stern of a ship is called the quarterdeck. Another term pertaining to maritime vocabulary is quartermaster. One or more quartermasters traditionally assisted the master, or captain, of a ship (later an officer subordinate to the captain called the sailing master) in navigation; it remains a rating, or a designation delineating job responsibilities, in modern navies. (Among pirates during the Age of Sail, however, quartermaster was the title of a crew member second only to the captain in authority; often, both positions were filled by election.)

Although these low-ranking but key naval officers also helped the master stow supplies and cargo to optimize smooth sailing, the application of the word to refer to an army officer responsible for disbursing clothing and supplies to troops seems to have developed independently, stemming from the title of a court official responsible for a monarch’s sleeping chamber.

Quarter also describes 25 cents in US currency, especially a coin bearing that value.

Terms derived from quarter are defined below:

In football, a quarterback is positioned midway between the front line and the halfback, who is halfway between the line and the fullback. (The halfback and fullback positions were derived from similar positions in rugby, from which football originated, while the quarterback position was invented for football.)

The noun quarterly, which refers to a publication produced four times a year, is derived from the adjective quarterly, which describes any occurrence of that frequency.

A quarterstaff is a long stick used as a weapon; both competing explanations for the origin of the word (either it refers to the placement of one’s hands when wielding it or to quarter used to refer to a cut of lumber) lack authority.

A quartet is a group of any four people or things, though the term usually pertains to a four-piece music ensemble.

A quarto is a format for printing books or pamphlets in which eight pages are printed on one sheet of paper to produce four leaves with print on both sides; the term may also refer to the size of a publication (about as large as a magazine).

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13 Responses to “The Many Meanings of Quarter”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I do not intend to show any quarter on these issues….

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax: The word “quartermaster” was mentioned three times in the original article (by an exact count) all in the same paragraph about the nautical usage, and nothing about the “quartermaster corps” in the Armies of the world – or even in the Air Forces or the Marine Corps. In one paragraph, there was a vague reference to “army officer” in another paragraph entirely, but the vast majority of people in the quartermaster corps of any service are enlisted men and enlisted women. To put a point on it, there are the proverbial “Supply Sergeants” in the quartermaster corps or the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, along with the corporals and privates who work there, too.
    I just do not see any reason for arguing with me about what was a Big Omission of a lot of people who do important jobs in the services.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax: I despise the so-called word “comprise” intensely. We don’t need it, I don’t want it, and you can upstick it arsewise. Among its any other sins is that it is a Briticism. I don’t see any reason for you to get argumentative about this.

    Furthermore, a fifth of liquor is 750 milliliters BY DEFINITION, and you have no business at all arguing with anyone at all, especially an engineer, about this definition, and the very sound reasoning behind it. It was defined this was to clarify things re Imperial gallons and the common gallons of various kinds, and also to standardize things on the S.I. (International System) of units. This is something that has also been done internationally, to great benefit, in pharmaceuticals, electricity, motor vehicles, telecommunications, and the military.

    For example, motor vehicle factories and mechanics in the USA, Canada, England, France, Germany, and Japan use the same tools and parts with the same standard sizes; and likewise for doctors, pharmacies, hospitals, and medical supply companies.

  • venqax

    @DAW: AHH! Twice missed perfect opportunities to display comprise in its appropriate venue:

    “There are the five phases of the Moon, which include the following:
    New Moon, first quarter, half moon, third quarter, and Full Moon!”

    Could[ve been:

    “There are the five phases of the Moon, which comprise:
    New Moon, first quarter, half moon, third quarter, and Full Moon!”

    “In music, a “string quartet” has a standard definition: it consists of these players and instruments, two violins, one viola, and one cello.”

    Could’ve been:

    “In music, a “string quartet” has a standard definition: it comprisesthese players and instruments, two violins, one viola, and one cello.

    Oh well…

  • venqax

    750 and mL is NOT a fifth of liquor. It is what is used by the dastardly and deceptive marketers in the spirits industry instead of fifths at the expense of the poor and abused yet noble imbiber. A fifth of a gallon is almost 758 mL. Hence the weightiest and most neglected issue facing Western Civilization today: “The Purloined 8”

  • venqax

    “You did not mention that the work “quartermaster” has an entirely different meaning in the Army than it does in the Navy…”

    In fact, he did:

    “…the application of the word to refer to an army officer responsible for disbursing clothing and supplies to troops seems to have developed independently, stemming from the title of a court official responsible for a monarch’s sleeping chamber.”

    I knew that the title had completely different meanings in Army vs Navy usage. I did not know that the differences were the product of distinct etymologies. Interesting.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The “quarter” is related to the word “quadrant” because they both refer to the number four and dividing things into four parts, including circles. There as an ancient instrument for stellar navigation called a “quadrant” because it relied on dividing a circle into four equal parts, creating a 90-degree angle-with which ingenious things were done. In the modernized version, the circle is divided into six equal parts, creating the “sextant” navigational device.
    In the original TV series of STAR TREK with all of its navigational problems, they often referred to “quadrants” of space without being very specific. I believe that in 3-dimensional space, “quadrants” ought to divide space into eight equal pieces, with up/down, left/right, and forward/backward delineating them in some way.

    Then the producers of “The Next Generation” did not see it that way, and they arbitrarily divided our galaxy into four quadrants named alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. It did not give with what had been doe in The Original Series (TOS) at all.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In music, a “string quartet” has a standard definition: it consists of these players and instruments, two violins, one viola, and one cello.

    Music has been written for other ensembles of strings, but the string quartet is by far the most popular. Also, if you hear that a group like the “Toronto String Quartet” is going to perform, the you know what you are going to get: two violins one violin, one cello, and no bass fiddles, ukuleles, guitars, etc.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Speaking of fluids, gallons, quarts, fifths, and alcoholic beverages.
    There are more than one kind of gallon, including an American gallon and the somewhat larger Imperial gallon, and maybe more.
    A “fifth” of alcoholic liquor used to be defined as 1/5 of a gallon, but then the gallons differed between the USA, Canada, the U.K., etc.
    A “fifth” is now standardized everywhere as 750 milliliters, or in other words, 3/4 of a liter.
    Other standard measurements of liquor and wine include 1.0 liter, 1.5 liter, 2.0 liters, and 3.0 liters, so it is almost all done on the metric system now, though beer still comes in pints, quarts, 12 ounces, etc.

    Believe it or not, in Mexico they still sell milk in American quarts, which is are about 486 milliliters, rather than in half-liters = 500 milliliters. Of course, a good reason for that is that the dairy business is very large in the United States (including in California), but much smaller in Mexico.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There are the five phases of the Moon, which include the following:
    New Moon, first quarter, half moon, third quarter, and Full Moon!
    Somehow, I do not think that many people go outdoors to look at the Moon anymore.
    Yesterday evening, there was a spectacular conjunction between the crescent and a very bright appearance of the planet Venus.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Nichol,
    You have not mentioned the concept of “quarter” which is showing mercy towards enemies in combat or as prisoners-of-war. I don’t know the origin of the term “to show quarter”, but it would be interesting to know.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hello:
    You did not mention that the work “quartermaster” has an entirely different meaning in the Army than it does in the Navy, Coast Guard, or Merchant Marine. The U.S. Army even has a Quartermaster Corps, and the duties of the Army quartermasters are in logistics & supply.
    Armies have many different of these kinds of “corps”, besides the field combat corps:
    quartermaster corps, signal corps, engineering corps, intelligence corps, aviation corps, medical corps, dental corps, legal corps, chaplain corps, military police corps, administrative corps, liaison corps, paymaster corps, technical corps, transportation corps, and for the lack of a better word right now, “vittles corps”.
    “An army marches on its stomach,” is the old saying, but the quartermasters deliver the food.

    I am not a veteran of any military or naval service, but my father was in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and his brother was in the U.S. Navy ASW service, a sonarman.
    D.A.W.

  • Roberta B.

    Quarters as living accommodations pertain to the surrounding four walls. The campus “quad” refers to the quadrangle – the 4-sided shape of the open area – typically surrounded by buildings and used as common or gathering space for students or employees. Even the term “court,” as in tennis court, refers to an enclosed, 4-sided playing area.

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