June 2008

Our modern society’s most consistent method for conveying a sense of authenticity is lumpiness.

My friend Mephisto Stormbane, Scourge of the GOP, Defiler of Language, is of the opinion that quite is such an insane word that it’s non-functioning. While I see where he’s coming from, I disagree that it’s as bad as a word like bimonthly. It approaches that state of being a Contextually Unidentifiable Autoantonym, but it’s not QUITE there.

For example, in that last sentence, I used the word, and everyone, on both sides of the Atlantic understood my meaning. This is part of why quite is so weird. In the states, the meaning of quite is more or less fixed. It means “very much” as in “I quite liked it.” The UK meaning, however, is either “very much” OR “only slightly”, making it pretty much a Contextually Unidentifiable Autoantonym. In spoken language delivery can make it work, but in text, it’s very tricky.
A scale for the degree to which a thing is liked.
Things get really crazy when you introduce negations of quite. When one says that they “didn’t quite like it,” they’re saying the same thing in both US and UK English. Given that the words have different meanings, this is already kind of weird, but then you take into account that the accepted meaning of “didn’t quite like,” that you almost liked it, but just barely didn’t, isn’t actually a negation of either meaning of “quite liked,” syntactically speaking.

For the “very much” meaning, you have “I did not very much like it.” While this may seem straightforward, it isn’t. Again, it’s the syntax. Another example of this is the distinction between “cannot” and “can not”. The two phrases seem very similar, but in reality, the first means “unable to” while the second means “able to not”. For example “I cannot go out to dinner.” He can’t go to dinner. Maybe he’s broke or something. Maybe he’s busy. Regardless, he’s unable to eat out. “I can not go out to dinner.” He is able to not go out to dinner. Maybe he usually eats out, but he’s telling you he can cook, or that he’s willing to cancel his dinner plans to do something else. Because of phrases like this, english speakers often think of not as meaning the opposite, when it really is JUST negation. All possibilities other than that which was specifically negated are open.

So with “didn’t quite like it” what are we really saying? (Again, syntactically. For all practical purposes, the “almost, but just barely not” meaning holds.) That you did something OTHER than very much like it, which is extremely broad in its meaning. It implies a range of possible meanings.

This is also true of the UK only meaning, though that comes closer. What the words spoken really mean is “I did not just barely like it.” What we accept them to mean is “I just barely didn’t like it.”
In the image above, we have added both the accepted meaning for “didn’t quite like,” which is universal (making it the only version that can safely be used in a text intended for cross-Atlantic readership) and the syntactic meanings, indicated with red braces showing all the potential meanings still allowed by the negation of not quite.

As I believe I have successfully illustrated, the word quite is fucking crazy. Fortunately, the phrase not quite, despite not actually being a coherent phrase, strictly speaking, is entirely safe to use, because even a grammar nazi has to admit that the accepted meaning is clear. Personally, I wish we’d correct this inconsistency by doing what we did with cannot, and applying the codified meaning to a new word, like noquite or notquite or unquite (though that last one sounds a little Newspeak). If we were to use only existing language, UK speakers would be able to accurately express not quite/i> by saying quite not, or “just barely not.” Of course, since it’s a little too late to restandardize English, the big hope here is for foreign speakers to find our current construction so confusing that they introduce and popularize an alternative. Stress testing your language is just one of the free benefits of Globalization.

French people don’t French Kiss. It’s weird, I know, but it’s true. They do make out, but when they do, they hold their bodies very very still, and no one gets handsy at all. They don’t even embrace very tightly. The only thing moving is their lips. It’s kind of creepier, because instead of looking like they’re crazy horny, they just look like badly designed make out robots.