Etymology Corner- Quantum

Hey etymology corner fans! 2018 is upon us, even if it’s only been here for a small amount of time. You could even call that small portion a quantum, just like the leaps our good boy Mr. Bakula takes in that one show. But I’m not a physicist, I’m a word-thing-guy, so let’s start with the fact that quantum is a direct borrowing from Latin. In Latin the word was a bit more interrogative, basically translating to “how much?” This leads to a whole lot of good questions.

From quantum and its derivatives, all words used to ask questions, we can ask about the quantity of things, but we can also ask their worth or about any other aspects of them, thus discerning its quality. A small quantity of British pounds sterling is sometimes called a quid, how many times something is required is its quotient and if you wanted to mark off the page number in a book a certain passage was it would be called a quote. When you want to ask how many pounds something weighs you would say “Qua libra?” which gave us caliber. This same root runs across all sorts of queries and questions to the point where if you speak any other Romance language you will recognize the same root in their interrogatives.

Soon, you see words that pop up from the idea of asking and answering questions. If a stage actor wants to know where and when they are making an appearance, they want to know their cue. If you want to compare two things as somewhat similar you could say they are quasi-related. This gave scientists the name for quasi-stellar radio sources, more commonly shortened to quasar. A certain Catholic event also known as Low Sunday was called Quasimodo after the biblical quote “as newborn babes” and inspired the name of everyone’s favorite fictional humpback. When Latin debaters used a bunch of circular logic and rhetorical questions to belittle points they were said to quibble and quip. And when Spaniards determined who a person was descended from to give them a title of nobility one such title was of hidalgo. If all this has you confused and you don’t know what to decide you might drop the /k/ sound and just ask whether one thing is better than the other, which evolved into the words either, neither and neuter. Of course, neuter eventually gave us words like neutral and neutron.

The questions don’t stop there! See, the Latin question words all stem from the Proto-Indo-European root *kwo-. And the PIE language family doesn’t just include the Romance languages. The Proto-Germanic language dropped the /k/ sound entirely and produced the words *hwas, *hwat, *hwar, *hwan, *hwo and *hwi. These evolved into the English who, what, where, when, how and why, which is why those words are all spelled with both the h and the w despite their pronunciations. *Hwas got the form *hwa-lik literally meaning “who-like” which evolved into which. Another branch of the PIE tree in Persia got the Urdu word chiz from the same root, meaning simply “a thing”. During their occupation of India the British heard the slang use of the word meaning “the proper thing”, equivalent to our modern phrase “really something” and thought it sounded like the unrelated word cheese. Hence we have the expression “the big cheese” to refer to an important person or event. Without a proper explanation, that usage seems pretty unrelated, but that’s what happens when you mess with quantum theory.


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