16 Latin Question Words Hiding in the English Language
By John Kelly
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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”).
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.
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.
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?”).
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.
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.
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.”
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.