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shameless pleading

Quit

Outta here.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word “quit”? — Rex.

That’s a good question.  It’s also a topical question, because I imagine that the number of people “quitting” — voluntarily leaving — their jobs has probably taken a nosedive in the current “economic climate,” as the pundits call the mess we seem to be in.  Incidentally, I dread to think what our actual climate would be if, like the picture of Dorian Gray, it reflected the parlous state of our economy.  I imagine a parched, smoldering desert baking under a merciless sun, the silence punctuated only by screeching of vultures and the screams of consumers who have fallen into the pits of scalding quicksand, the horizon barren except for a faded and scorched sign reading “Ozymandias Securities, LLC.”

OK, back to work. Incidentally, vultures don’t screech. The only sound they make is a loud huffing noise, rather like a bull snorting.  I know because a family of vultures lives right outside my window.  They’re very nice.  We’re pals.

OK, really back to work.  “Quit” is a very old word which has, as very old words often do, a wide range of meanings and platoons of interesting relatives.  It all began with the Latin noun “quies,” which meant, as the Oxford English Dictionary enumerates, “sleep, rest, repose, absence of activity, absence of noise, freedom from disturbance, freedom from anxiety, placidness, serenity, tranquility, peaceful conditions.”  “Quies” produced a derivative verb “quiescere,” (to be still or quiet), and its past participle “quietus” gave us our modern English word “quiet.”

One of the key meanings of “quies” and “quietus” was that of “freedom” from war, anxiety, or debt.  When English first adopted the Anglo-Norman word “quit” (a descendant of “quietus”) in the early 13th century, it was in the sense of “free or released from a debt or obligation,” whether legal, financial or personal.  The verb “to quit,” which developed a bit later, carried the sense of “to set free” in general, but soon developed dozens of specific meanings, from “to repay a debt” to “to release from bondage or debt” to “to prove a person innocent of a crime,” a meaning now handled by the related English word “acquit.”  Other derivatives include “requite,” which originally meant simply “to repay, to return,” but which is now found most commonly in the form “unrequited,” as in “unrequited love,” affection which is not shared by its object.  Even our common English word “quite” is derived from “quit,” and originally meant “absolutely, completely” (“free of any opposition”), but has, since the 19th century, been weakened to mean merely “somewhat” or “moderately” (“The woman has quite a fine face, only she dresses … in a potato sack,” Virginia Woolf, 1915).

The most common sense of “to quit” today, that of “to leave,” arose in the 16th century (“We know our exit, And quit the roome,” 1623).  But “to quit” meaning specifically “to leave, resign or withdraw” from a job, line of work, committee, etc., is more recent, dating to the early 17th century (“He was design’d to the Study of the Law; and had made considerable progress in it, before he quitted that Profession, for this of Poetry,” Dryden, 1680).  The use of “to quit” to mean “to stop doing something” (smoking, drinking, gambling, etc.) also first appeared in the 17th century.

1 comment to Quit

  • David John Mason

    Being English This is a word I have used since I was a kid. But tonight it came up in my local club here in Cape Town.I did not know the origin but tonight I have got an acceptable answer.

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