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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.”

October 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Special note: If you sent me a package at my PO Box in the past month, I didn’t get it. I got the notice in my box, but the PO droids only shrug when I ask where the actual prize is. I’m fairly certain this is not how it’s supposed to work, so if you did send me something, say the word (to and I’ll break out the torches and pitchforks. I know, I know, it was probably just a review copy of something, but sometimes people send me really neat stuff, and it must have been neat, because who steals books from a post office? Maybe it was a Thinkpad T-440, eh? That would figure.

Onward. Yeah, OK, there was no September issue. Keep in mind that most people hate September, so I was actually doing y’all a favor. It was a crummy month anyway, of which more in a moment.

Elsewhere in the news, Weird Cat is still weird. I mentioned last time (can’t really say “last month,” amirite?) that we had been followed home from a nocturnal walk by The Implacable Cat, a strange little creature of no discernible provenance who was apparently firmly convinced that she was fated to live with us. We fed her on the front porch for more than a month while we searched for her real keepers, with no success, and finally let her in when the weather changed and the only alternative was feline hypothermia. She doesn’t have a proper name because we’re still trying to find her a home, so we’ve been calling her CatCat. We seem to be having a problem with cat names around here; CatCat joins Little Girl Cat and Lady Cat in the pathetic name fails of our resident herd.

Worst-case scenario

The strange part of this saga is that we’re not entirely sure that CatCat is, in fact, a cat. She looks like a cat dreamed up by Edward Gorey, mottled brown and gray with orange patches and strangely piercing eyes, a very Victorian-looking critter. But her demeanor is the weird part. As Kathy says, she behaves like something else that is taking the shape of a cat at the moment, but doesn’t have “catness” down quite right. She’s exceptionally placid; within a day of letting her inside we found her stretched out on the living room couch on her back, sound asleep, while several of the resident cats sat nearby staring at her. Sit down and she’s instantly in your lap for a nap, purring with a strange low hum. When dinnertime comes, she doesn’t mill around yowling in the kitchen with the mob, but zips into the other room and waits sedately by her plate. (If she decides to leave a room, she doesn’t walk or trot — she scurries in a weirdly robotic fashion, like a wind-up toy, moving very quickly with no apparent effort.)

Edward Gorey and cat (© Jill Krementz, 1972)

She never fights with the other cats — if they try to intimidate her, she looks at them calmly and hisses softly and they back off. She doesn’t even put her ears back or crouch in a fighting stance; she just sits there. I think it’s safe to say that the other cats are seriously weirded out. Even Marley, who regards himself as the guardian of my office and frequently chases his own brother out of the room, leaves and waits in the hall when CatCat wanders in. Anyhow, stay tuned. I can’t say more right now because she just walked in and I don’t wanna get wished into the cornfield so conveniently located right across the street.

Meanwhile, on the You-Call-This-a-Culture? beat, Homeland is apparently back on Showtime, taking a stab at rebooting after its ludicrous and repulsive third season. And at some point we’ll have another season of The Americans on FX. No one above the age of fifteen takes Homeland seriously (I hope), but I’m sure we’ll be treated to more glowing articles in the Washington Post and NY Times praising The Americans for its meticulous attention to detail in its portrayal of the struggle between Soviet spies and the FBI in the mid-1980s DC suburbs. That is, of course, insane, because the show is a bad joke, mixing wooden acting with absurd Tom Clancy-esque melodrama. Nearly every episode involves someone being tortured in one of the multitude of vacant warehouses that apparently dot the DC landscape. It’s a painfully stupid show, which is sad, because US/USSR espionage during the Cold War has produced some riveting stories (e.g., those by John le Carre).

The real Aldrich Ames in FBI mugshot

All of which brings me to an eight-part ABC TV miniseries called “The Assets,” now available on Netflix Streaming. It originally aired in January 2014, but was, get this, cancelled after two episodes. Ouch. ABC ran a few more parts last summer at odd hours, but ratings stank and the remaining episodes were never aired. This is a crime. The Assets is a truly fascinating “docudrama” about the detection and exposure of Aldrich Ames, a CIA counter-intelligence analyst who sold secrets (mostly the identities of CIA “assets” working inside the Soviet military and KGB) to the USSR in the 1980s. As for authenticity, it’s based on a book by the two female CIA analysts who actually led the effort to unmask Ames. This series is better than Homeland or The Americans by a country mile, and if it had been on a cable channel it probably would have gained the large audience it deserves. I honestly think the show went over the head of the average ABC viewer; it required a willingness to listen closely to dialogue. It lacks car chases, shoot-outs with automatic weapons, supermodels, bombs with big red countdown timers, and all the other cartoonish accoutrements of successful network TV. It does offer a strikingly realistic portrayal of the spycraft actually used in that period and a nuanced and humane view of the Soviets spying for the US who were betrayed by Ames. It’s a very well-made series. You should watch it.

OK, so why was September such a bad month? I’m not really up for explaining what happened yet, but the bottom line (literally) is that our income, already anemic due to my disability, has abruptly been cut by about 70%. We were strapped before; now we’re totally screwed.

And there are, it turns out, limits to how many lights you can turn off, both literally and metaphorically. One of the reasons we want to find a home for CatCat is that now we really can’t afford to feed another cat. And all the things were were working on fixing in the near future (car, my teeth, water softener, computer, etc.) are now in the column marked “maybe never.” So your subscriptions and support, in whatever amount you can afford, will be deeply appreciated.

And now, on with the show…


Feckless and gormless, oh my!

Dear Word Detective:  I have no idea if I’m even spelling this right, but I love the term “Nair do well.” I don’t know if it’s one, two, or three separate words. I grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood, and my father has been using it for as long as I can remember in reference to some of our neighbors. A few years ago, I asked him what it meant. He replied, “Someone who sits around all day and doesn’t work.” I started using the term “Nair do well” amongst colleagues, and no one has ever heard of it. Is it a real phrase or word, or is my old man full of it? — P.

Hmm. That’s a good question, but before we begin, we should clear things up a bit. The term you’re looking for is “ne’er-do-well,” with the “ne’er” being pronounced as you spelled it, “nair,” rhyming with “hair.”

Meanwhile, “Nair” (capitalized) is the brand name of a well-known depilatory, i.e., a hair removal product (“pilus” being the Latin word for “hair”). According to Wikipedia (caveat lector), modern depilatories use agents such as lime and lye to weaken the strands of hair, allowing them to be easily wiped away. Whee! Wikipedia suggests, quite reasonably, that the name “Nair” is a “portmanteau” (combined form) of “no” and “hair.”

None of that, of course, has anything to do with “ne’er-do-well,” although the relationship of virtue to hair is complex and fluid. In the 1960s, for instance, movie villains were frequently completely bald (think Ernst Blofeld in James Bond movies of the day) and male heroes usually sported either healthy heads of hair or pricey toupees. Today the villains are usually quite hirsute and heroes (e.g., Bruce Willis, The Rock) are largely or completely bald. Go figure. I’m sure there’s a doctoral thesis lurking in there somewhere.

A “ne’er-do-well” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A good-for-nothing; a worthless, disreputable person,” which is certainly laying it on the line. “Ne’er-do-well” can also be used as an adjective meaning “Never doing any good; good-for-nothing, worthless.” The term entered English in the early 18th century from Scots, which is why it sounds so cool when you say it in a Willie the Groundskeeper voice.

It’s pretty clear that the average “ne’er-do-well” doesn’t “do well” in the sense of accomplishing anything useful, but that leaves the mystery of the “ne’er.” But that’s not really much of a mystery: “ne’er” is simply a colloquial contraction of “never,” once part of mainstream English but now found largely in regional speech and poetic uses where one dreamy syllable is preferable to two (“Those dogs that from him ne’er would rove.” 1829).

While “ne’er-do-well” was originally a seriously pejorative term for someone considered a bum, scoundrel or worse, in its diluted modern use it’s often applied to someone who has just unexpectedly but persistently deviated from a social norm. Thus the uncle who breezes into town every five years to borrow money or the nephew who flits from scheme to scheme while still living at home at age 35 might well be tagged as “ne’er-do-wells.”