Thursday, June 03, 2004


A Grotesque Word

We would find it difficult to carry on many a conversation in English without benefit of the word 'quality.' There are some words whose origins we can track down exactly, and this is one of them. In Theaetetus 182a Plato uses the noun 'poiotes' (meaning 'what-sort-ness,' from 'poios' = 'of what sort') and apologizes for the grotesque word ('allokoton onoma').

Cicero imported Plato's 'poiotes' from Greek into Latin, coining the equivalent 'qualitas' (from 'qualis' = 'of what sort'). See his Academica 1.6.24-1.7.25, where he says (tr. H. Rackham):
I will do my best to talk Latin, except in the case of words of the sort now in question, so as to employ the term 'philosophy' or 'rhetoric' or 'physics' or 'dialectic' [all loan words from Greek], which like many others are now habitually used as Latin words. I have therefore given the name of 'qualities' to the things that the Greeks call 'poiotetes'; even among the Greeks it is not a word in ordinary use, but belongs to the philosophers.
English 'quality' is derived from Latin 'qualitas,' but it has escaped from philosophical discourse into everyday use.

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