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shameless pleading

Quire

They rhyme for a reason.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, I was able to tour Westminster Abbey in London. Upon entering I gathered up a brochure describing the main features and history of the building. Part of the description reads “East of the screen is the quire…”. You have covered the 24-pages-of-paper meaning of “quire,” and you mention, in passing, the origin of “choir,” a group of singers. It is unlikely the authors of this brochure would be unaware of the difference in meaning between these two words, so I assume this is a genuine option for the spelling of “choir.” Would you care to explain? — Jim Brown.

Sure, why not? I should probably begin by explaining (for those just joining us) “quire” in the “paper” sense. “Quire” (from the Latin “quaterni,” set of four, from “quatro,” four) was originally a term used in Medieval printing, and meant four sheets of paper folded once, which made eight leaves or sixteen pages. Quires were used for pamphlets as well as for “signatures,” or packets of pages, bound in larger books. The definition of “quire” drifted a bit over time, and eventually it came to mean 24 and then 25 sheets of paper, or one-twentieth of a ream.

None of that, however, has anything whatsoever to do with the “quire” in Westminster Abbey and other cathedrals, churches or chapels. Incidentally, and apropos of nothing except the word “cathedral,” if you’re hankering for a great ghost story set in a cathedral (and who isn’t?), I highly recommend The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral by the incomparable M.R. James. The BBC did a film version in 1971 that’s available on YouTube, but the story is better. There’s even a big black cat in it.

But enough folderol, I hear you say, cut to the chase! OK, here’s the bottom line. “Choir” and “quire” in the cathedral sense are the same word. Not just ancestrally, not just developmentally, but literally the same word. “Quire” is the reason that “choir” is pronounced “quire.” Because they’re the same word. “Choir” is simply spelled weirdly. And thereby hangs a tale.

The ultimate root of “choir/quire” is the Latin “chorus,” meaning “company of dancers,” “singers in church,” or the place or area reserved for singers in a church. “Choir” came to English through the Old French form “cuer,” which in Middle English became “quere.” This slowly became “quire” by about the 15th century. The word retained most of the meanings of the Latin “chorus,” which entered English itself in the 16th century, but “quire” was used primarily in religious contexts while “chorus” tended to more secular use. “Quire” was also used to mean the specific part of the church or cathedral reserved for the singers, which (as your quote from the Westminster brochure illustrates) was often separated from the rest of the church by a latticework screen of some sort.

The “quire” spelling stayed in place until the end of the 17th century, when the spelling “choir” (which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) deliciously terms “fictitious”) was adopted. The rationale was to “Latinize” the word by analogy to “chorus,” but because the pronunciation “quire” was so deeply rooted in popular usage, the result was a word (“choir”) that bore absolutely no resemblance to the way it is said. According to the OED entry on the two words, the spelling “quire” is still used in the “English Prayer-book” (presumably the Anglican Book of Common Prayer), but the OED entry is from 1889, and that may no longer be true. That Westminster still uses the spelling “quire” is interesting, since most citations in the OED after 1708 spell it “choir.”

1 comment to Quire

  • Tim B

    In UK churches, a quire is where the choir sits / perches. “Quite” is still the right word to put in a guidebook. Writing something like “moving east we enter the quire from which we can clearly see the original bosses” would seem strained with the ‘choir’ spelling.

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