October 18, 2005

'Quite' Redux

British vs. American uses of 'quite' have come up on Crooked Timber before. Here's a bit of data, from Harry Hutton:

Anyway, if you have nothing more pressing to do, there’s a list of stupid names at Harry’s Place.... Which are amusing, but only quite amusing.

"Only quite amusing" sounds just about incoherent to me as a Yank, in the way that "amusing, but only very amusing" would. This provides evidence against the possibility that "quite" means the same think in UK and American English, but calling something "quite good" implicates that it's only moderately good when ordinarily more intense praise is called for (cf. Ophelia Benson in CT comments, and the next few comments, including one by a guy who can't spell "compliment.")

Posted by Matt Weiner at October 18, 2005 10:27 AM

On Saturday my mother tried to tell me an anecdote turning on the supposed point that Americans use "quite good" to mean "very good." I told her that I didn't believe a word of it.

(Although of course "quite good" could be used as an understated compliment when a greater compliment is really intended, cf. saying that something is "not half bad"... I thought the Brits were supposed to be the ones into understatement, so it's strange if they don't get that.)

I can't believe that "amusing, but only quite amusing" would be typical usage on either side of the Atlantic.

Posted by: Richard Mason at October 18, 2005 03:01 PM

Googling the phrase but only quite, I get a bunch of false positives ("but only quite recently," "but only quite ordinary") and about 20% "quite but only quite" formulations in the first 30 hits out of about 476. I can't be arsed to try and figure out whether most of those are by Brits, but oddly enough one refers to Harry Hutton. Actually I can't tell what that's supposed to mean. It seems like it ought to be a left-handed compliment but then he calls him "the best blog going around." Mysterious people, those British, or whatever they are.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at October 18, 2005 10:49 PM

Well, <100 Google hits could be a fairly marginal phenomenon, but I'm surprised there are even that many. "Quite elegant but only quite good"? (British wine merchant) Who the hell says such a thing?

Posted by: Richard Mason at October 19, 2005 12:18 AM

I think you said it--British wine merchant. It's hardly the weirdest phrase on that site to a philistine like me: "Well-focused with crunchy blackcurrant fruit and a little gravelly core." Well, making fun of wine merchants is a tad trite (and that's probably more responsible than the British thing).

The weird thing about that is that in "quite elegant" "quite" seems to be an intensifier but in "but only quite good" it has to be whatever the opposite of an intensifier is. (According to this, an intensifier. I give up.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at October 19, 2005 09:25 AM

And, though I think we're warned off taking this too seriously, if you compare the number of hits for "but only somewhat" (about 12,500, with fewer false positives) "but only quite" does seem to be marginal. "But only very" has many more hits, though I'm guessing none of those is "X, but only very X"--I don't know how to search for that.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at October 19, 2005 09:28 AM