16 Latin Question Words Hiding in the English Language

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Latin is ubiquitous in English. As Dictionary.com observes, “About 80 percent of the entries in any English dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin.” That even includes some of ancient Rome’s most nut-and-bolts words, like quid, “what,” quis, “who,” and the ubi in ubiquitous, meaning “where.” Here are 16 English words constructed from some of the most basic building blocks of the Latin language.

1. QUALITY

Quality derives from the Latin qualitas, “character” or “essential nature.” The great Roman statesman Cicero coined it, on the basis of qualis (“of what kind”), to translate a word the Greek philosopher Plato himself created: poiotes, “suchness.”

2. QUANTITY

A quantity is the “amount” of something, just like its Latin root, quantitas. This word is formed from quantus, “how much,” also the source of quantum.

3. QUIDDITY

No, this word doesn’t size up your Quidditch skills. It literally means “whatness,” formed from the Latin quid, or “what.” Quiddity was introduced as a philosophical term in the Middle Ages for “what makes a thing what it is.” In the 16th century, English writers apparently mocked scholars’ overuse of the term, turning it into a term for a quibble.

4. QUIBBLE

Speaking of quibbles, the earliest sense of quibble, recorded in the 1610s, is as a “pun” or “play on words.” The word not long after took on its modern sense of an “objection to a trivial matter.” Quibble appears to be a diminutive form of the older quib, “an evasion of a point at issue.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests quib comes from the Latin quibus (“by what things”), a form of quid (“what”), “a word of frequent occurrence in legal documents and hence associated with the length and unnecessary complexity of legal documents.”

5. QUIP

Originally a “sarcastic remark” before softening to a “witticism,” quip might be from the Latin quippe, apparently used much like “Oh really?” Quippe is also based on quid (“what”), the neuter form of quis (“who”).

6. QUIDNUNC

A quidnunc is a fancy word for a “gossiper.” It’s from the Latin quid nunc, literally “what now,” which clever English speakers adopted for the incessant questioning of a nosy person.

7. QUID

We’ve seen Latin’s quid (“what”) already in a number of words. It may also be responsible for the British slang quid, or “one pound sterling,” used much as the American English buck. One of the leading explanations is that quid is shortened from the Latin expression quid pro quo, “one thing for another,” or an exchange, hence its application to money.

8. QUANDARY

The origin of quandary is, well, quite a quandary. A number of etymologists have proposed quandary as a quasi-Latin expression for some kind of dilemma of donation: quantum dare (“How much to give?”), quando dare (“When to give?”), or quam dare (“How to give?”).

9. CUE

The Latin quando (“when”) may also be the source of cue, which signals an actor to begin their lines. A 1553 letter, among other examples in the 16th and 17th centuries, refers to a Q marked in actor’s text of a play, which has been explained as an abbreviation for a Latin word such as quando, or “when” the actor should start.

10. QUOTIENT

In mathematics, a quotient is what you get when you divide. The word is from the Latin quotiens, “how many times,” i.e., how many times one number goes into another.

11. QUOTE

The base of Latin’s quotiens is quot, “how many.” From this, Medieval Latin formed a verb, quotare, “to mark chapters” or “mark a book with numbers.” This is also what quote first meant when it was borrowed into English in the late 14th century. It evolved to “reproduce a passage from a book” to “give as a reference, support, or source” to “repeat or copy out exact words.”

12. QUOTIDIAN

Quot also shows up in quotidian, which is something “happening every day,” hence “ordinary.” It’s from the Latin quotidianus, which joined quot (“how many”) and dies (“day”).

13. QUORUM

A quorum is the minimum number of people who must be present at an assembly, a word we typically hear in the context of legislatures. It literally means “of whom” in Latin, and was originally used by 15th-century commissions in official language appointing select justices of the peace, who had to be present for a court session to be considered valid.

14. UBIQUITY

Latin roots have been ubiquitous in this post, or “everywhere.” Ubiquity was coined—on the model of Latin’s ubique, “anywhere” or “everywhere”—in the 16th century for a Christian theological doctrine that held God as omnipresent.

15. HIDALGO

So far, most of the words haven’t been hiding their “who” and “what” Latin roots. Not so for the final two. Hidalgo, a Spanish term for a “gentleman” and the name of a state in Mexico, is contracted from hijo de algo, “son of something” (think, a real someone). The algo comes from Latin’s aliquis, “anyone” or “someone,” which quis we previously saw in quip.

16. KICKSHAW

Finally, and most surprisingly, we have kickshaw, a “fancy but unsubstantial food dish.” This lively word is from the French quelque chose, “a little something.” As the OED explains, a kickshaw, adopted in the late 16th century, “was ‘something’ French, not one of the known ‘substantial’ English dishes.” The quelque in quelque chose goes back to the Latin qualis—the same qualis, to bring things full circle, we saw in quality.

How Coronavirus and 31 Other Infectious Diseases and Viruses Got Their Names

Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Dr_Microbe/iStock via Getty Images

As you may already know, the corona in coronavirus has no relation to a certain refreshing beer often served with a slice of lime. Corōna means “crown” in Latin—and Spanish and Italian, too—and virologists chose it in 1968 to describe the group of viruses characterized by crown-like spikes that protrude from their surfaces.

So how do other viruses and diseases get their names? Based on the infographic below, created by Adam Aleksic for his website, The Etymology Nerd, there isn’t just one way. Some, like the coronavirus, are named for how they look under a microscope. The rota in rotavirus, for example, which means “wheel” in Latin, reflects the virus’s wheel-like appearance when viewed beneath an electron microscope.

Others are named after the locations where they were discovered or studied. In 1947, scientists named a newly identified mosquito-borne virus after Uganda’s Zika Forest. In 1977, Yale researchers investigating a string of pediatric arthritis cases in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, started referring to the illness as “Lyme arthritis.” Later, the name was modified to “Lyme disease” when scientists realized patients were exhibiting other symptoms, too.

Still others are characterized by the symptoms they cause. People with tetanus—from the Greek tetanos, for “tension”—usually experience muscle stiffness, and the skin of yellow fever sufferers often takes on a yellow tint due to jaundice.

Find out the origins of malaria, measles, and more below. And follow The Etymology Nerd on Instagram for more fascinating etymological explanations.

etymology nerd infectious disease names infographic
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Latin in this infographic.

What Makes a Hotel Breakfast 'Continental'?

Hotels often offer a complimentary pastry and fruit breakfast.
Hotels often offer a complimentary pastry and fruit breakfast.
tashka2000/iStock via Getty Images

The continental breakfast, which is typically made up of pastries, fruit, and coffee, is often advertised by hotels as a free perk for guests. But why is it called continental, and why don’t patrons get some eggs and bacon along with it?

The term dates back to 19th century Britain, where residents referred to mainland Europe as “the continent.” Breakfast in this region was usually something light, whereas an English or American breakfast incorporated meat, beans, and other “heavy” menu options.

American hotels that wanted to appeal to European travelers began advertising “continental breakfasts” as a kind of flashing neon sign to indicate guests wouldn’t be limited to American breakfast fare that they found unappealing. The strategy was ideal for hotels, which saved money by offering some muffins, fruit, and coffee and calling it a day.

That affordability as well as convenience—pastries and fruit are shelf-stable, requiring no heat or refrigeration to maintain food safety—is a big reason continental breakfasts have endured. It’s also a carryover from the hybrid model of hotel pricing, where American hotels typically folded the cost of meals into one bill and European hotels billed for food separately. By offering a continental breakfast, guests got the best of both worlds. And while Americans were initially aghast at the lack of sausages and pancakes on offer, they’ve since come around to the appeal of a muffin and some orange juice to get their travel day started.

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