I was sitting here watching the rain, and thinking about those two words, quite and quiet. Obviously they’re… rather confusing for a lot of people, given how similar they look and sound. I wondered if there might be some link between the two. Surely not, I thought. Their meanings are so different: surely this is just one of those cases of words evolving to be similar independently. Surely…
I should have learned by now not to assume anything. Both words can be eventually traced back to the Latin quietus (calm, at rest, free from exertion). It’s not hard to see how we get quiet from quietus, but what about quite? Funnily enough it also comes to us from quietus, but via a similar if unexpected common word.
Quit!? How does that fit into all this? It’s all to do with the free from exertion sense of quietus. Around the early 13th century, quit came into being as a verb, meaning to pay a debt. You’d therefore be free from the debt, and its related exertions and stress. You can see how quit with its general modern meaning of leave developed from that.
Quite came about about a century later as an adverbial form of quit, and meant thoroughly. Getting thoroughly from quit isn’t obvious, but if you think of quit meaning clear or free at the time, quite makes sense as thoroughly if you think of as it being like clearly. If you do something quite well, it’s clearly done well, free and far from the everyday clutter.
It seems odd doesn’t it, that these three words are linked? Think about that the next time you quit work and look forward to a quite quiet evening.