WOTD: A quaint bit of country matters
March 24, 2007
So, Dash heads for New York, and I’m left writing today’s word of the day column. While some folks might view the request as a welcome sign of trust, I view it as a sure indication that Mr. Hammerskjold has lost most of his marbles. Unlike my columns, people actually check the word of the day with reasonable frequency, as well as with the expectation that they might learn a thing or two. We can only hope that this is part of some bold scheme that Dash has concocted; perhaps he took out a prodigious amount of blog-surance the day before he left. Because leaving the prime feature of your blog in the hands of someone who was once described as “at the cutting edge of third-grade humor” is a sure way to find it crashing down in flames when you return.
That having been said, today’s word of the day is “quaint.” Most readers are familiar with quaint as an adjective, describing that which is “Unusual or uncommon in character or appearance, but at the same time having some attractive or agreeable feature, esp., having an old-fashioned prettiness or daintiness” (OED, definition 8). At lunch the other day with a friend who is far more knowledgeable of matters of literature and philology, I mentioned that “my family comes from a quaint little village outside of Frankfurt.” She giggled a bit at this statement. Curious, I asked what was so funny, surmising that Germans, from their use of phonemes, to their attempts to run prisoner-of-war camps, are in fact pretty funny.
“No, it’s just the word. Quaint.” This confused me. Having read a bit of Mark Twain, I was familiar with quaint as a synonym for clever, as in A Connecticut Yankee, “This quaint lie was most simply and beautifully told” (also in OED, definition 2). Here, quaint derives from the middle English cointe, which in turn comes from the Latin cognitus/cognoscere (AHD). Yet, there didn’t seem to be much to laugh at, unless rural Germany brings to mind the setting for a Till Eulenspiegel-type of tale. So, obscurata aside, what was she getting at?
Well, as it turns out for the Chaucer nuts among us, quaint used to mean cunt. As in the Miller’s Tale, “Pryvely he caught hir by the queynte,” or for those who prefer John Florio, “a womans quaint or priuities” (OED definition 1). How very quaint. While this sort of business might make for curious blog postings, more than anything, it’s a sign that I need to stop hanging out with UChicago kids.