007? Q will see you now

Desmond Llewelyn as Q
How else to begin? Q has always had a certain cachet, a quirkiness unmatched by humbler members of the alphabet. Not least because it’s rarely seen without U. Technically, that’s called a digraph and although in English the two letters have separate identities, in Czech they are conjoined twins – and Turkish simply has no digraphs at all. (Incidentally, my favourite Q in the Bond films has to be Desmond Llewelyn.)

The concise OED (you remember – I can’t afford the shelf space for the Complete) has 9½ pages of quintessential Q words. A good number of those I regard as cheats – words and phrases borrowed from other languages. Personally, I think those people at Oxford get away with murder – they are the keepers of our beautiful mother tongue but really, is anyone keeping tabs on them? They could be Johnny Foreigner infiltrators for all we know.

Ed: Thank you Colonel Barrett-Plympton, we’ll take that under advisement, now if you’ll go with Nurse, I think she has some nice warm milk for you.

Before I go on, I’m going to get something out the way. I’m reluctant to mention it, but not to do so would be boorish. It would also unmask me as a person who has never read any of the Harry Potter books. I am unrepentant. The Q in question is Quidditch, a fictional game from the pen of JK Rowling. I caught a glimpse of a scene in one of the films when they were playing this game. It appeared to be a kind of airborne polo match minus the quaffing of Bolly or long legged girls in pretty frocks ruining their shoes on Smith’s Lawn. Couldn’t see the point myself.

Ed: You’re going to alienate a lot of our readers with this paragraph, you do know that, don’t you? I mean, how can you NOT have read Harry Potter?

Talking of Her Majesty the Queen, have you ever considered how many things will have to be changed upon her demise? We’re not just talking about the carpets at Sandringham and the thorny question of what will Camilla be called. Royal warrants by the thousand must be revised and all those pumped up lawyers will cease to be QCs and become KCs. All in all quite the printing nightmare – although I imagine printers will do very nicely out of it, thank you.

Ed: I’m going to ignore the fact that you jumped straight from fiction to monarchy but I am going to remind you that Mrs E Windsor is held in a great deal of regard in this country so it would behove you to be more respectful.

I’m longing to use quod erat demonstrandum but nil desperandum…

I thought when I began researching this article (yes, I do research things, is that so hard to believe? No, don’t answer that) that most words beginning with Q would concern questions, hence the title of this piece. But that’s simply not the case.

How much do I love the letter Q? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I could just as well have asked ‘Quantum do I love the letter Q?’ because the Latin for ‘how much’ is quantum. And if there’s anyone out there who can explain to me what quantum physics and quantum mechanics are all about without me having to attend night classes for six months, I’d be glad to include those subjects here. Suffice to say that my understanding of quantum physics and mechanics is heavily influenced by years of Star Trek viewing. All I need to know is that when Jean-Luc says ‘make it so’, I get a tingle.

Ed: Ramble ramble ramble.

I’ve picked eight toothsome words beginning with Q so let’s begin the beguine with Quark. Putting aside the Quite Interesting fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has a marvellous barkeep named Quark, here’s some science.  A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter.  

flavours of quark

Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons,
the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic
nucleii. There are six types of quarks (known as flavours) and they are up,
down, charm, strange, top and bottom. Quarks were only really discovered in
the 1960s, but they’ve stood the test of time, so it can’t all have been
magic ‘shrooms in the physics lab.Trouble is, I imagine the different
flavours of quarks as ice cream cones – “Can I have two scoops of strange
please with charm sprinkles please”. But instead of ice-cream, it turns out
(actually I knew this one from back in the days when I was a health food
freak) that quark is also a cheese. A curdy creamy cheese which originated
in Eastern Europe. The echt version is like a weighty fromage frais. In
Germany, it’s the equivalent of yogurt, packed with fruit (and preservatives,
no doubt) but it can also be enjoyed on bagels. It contains no salt and has
a low fat content, but that don’t let you put you off – actually, it’s delicious.

The Quince (Cydonia oblonga) is an orchard fruit native to southwest Asia. Although rather out of favour nowadays (only quince jelly is widely made), the fruit was as popular in 17th and 18th century cookery as apple and pear are today. This recipe would surely delight even modern cooks.

Sir Hugh Platt’s Quidini of Quinces
Take the kernells out of eight great Quinces, and boile them in a quart of spring water, till it come to a pinte, then put into it a quarter of a pinte of Rosewater, and one pound of fine Sugar, and so let it boile till you see it come to bee of a deepe colour: then take a drop, and drop it on the bottome of a sawcer, then let it run through a gelly bagge into a bason, then set it in your bason upon a chafing dish of coles to keep it warm, then take a spoone, and fill your boxes as full as you please, and when they be colde cover them: and if you please to printe it in moldes, you must have moldes made to the bigness of your boxe, and wet your moldes with Rosewater, and so let it run into your mold, and when it is colde turne it off into your boxes. If you wette your moldes with water, your gelly will fall out of them.
Sir Hugh Platt Delights for Ladies (London: 1600)

There are two very different meanings of quire. First is the archaic name for a choir. In non-conformist country churches of the Georgian era, groups of musicians, both singers and instrumentalists, would play for services, often seated in the wooden gallery above the congregation. The London Gallery Quire carries on that tradition to this day. The second meaning of quire is of course to do with paper. A quire is 24 sheets of paper comprise a twentieth of a ream or a collection of leaves of paper, folded one within the other. The word has come down from the Latin quaterni (four each) through the Old French quaier to the word we use today. A quire is also an old word for a quiver of arrows and, bizzarely, the collective noun for a group of cobras (see, I find it hard to visualize cobras in a group: they just don’t strike me as especially companionable animals). And I can’t leave quire without mentioning something I found on the wilder edges of my research. Quentin Quire, also known as Kid Omega, is a Marvel Comics character created by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely!

Ed: Comic book characters now? Oy…

There is one word where U does not follow the letter Q and some might say it’s not a real word at all. But it is in the dictionary – honestly. It’s Qwerty.

We have C.L. Sholes of Milwaukee to thank the keyboard layout we all love to hate. Although his first typewriting machines were arranged alphabetically in two rows, they were prone to jamming during typing. Sholes knew that to solve this problem, the typebars would have to hang at safe distances. The QWERTY keyboard was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside.

early qwerty keyboardNow, did you understand all that? Personally, I struggle with the technicalities, despite having learned to type on a 1920s typewriter which looked not unlike Mr Sholes’ machines of the 1870s.

Mr Sholes and his financial backer James Densmore went to Remington (at that time an arms manufacture) and in 1874 the first Type-Writer appeared on the market, offering, incidentally, only capital letters. In 1878, Sholes secured the patent for his QWERTY keyboard and the Remington No 2 was released complete with a shift key enabling upper and lower case type. There have been many attempts to improve on the QWERTY layout but none have shaken its place in the market.

My next word isn’t an object, it isn’t a place, it’s – well, it’s a quiddity. The dictionary gives three definitions. The first is that quiddity is the essence or nature of a thing. Second that it’s a quibble, a trifling point. And third that it’s an eccentricity or odd feature. Putting those definitions aside for a moment though, isn’t it just the most marvellous word? The kind of word that might inspire a verse or two, the kind of word that Proust could turn into an entire chapter. Saul Bellow deals with the word in his characteristically full-bodied way “I began to give some thought to the memoir I had promised to write and wondered how I would go about it – his freaks, quiddities, oddities, his eating, drinking, shaving, dressing and playfully savaging his students.” The origin is from Medieval Latin quidditas meaning essence and from that deceptively simple word what (or quid).

There is no rational explanation for choosing quipu as the next Q word. I saw the word and thought ‘oh yes, isn’t that the rather lovely South American forest bird I saw on a David Attenborough documentary?’ Well, I was right about South America but quipu is definitely not a bird. It’s altogether more fascinating. As used by the ancient Inca civilisation of Peru, Quipu is the use of knots in strings to record numerical information. The Inca had no written records so the quipu played a major role in the administration of the Inca empire. As an example of how a basic quipu worked, if the number 586 was to be recorded on the string, then six touching knots were placed near the free end of the string, a space was left, then eight touching knots for the 10s, another space, and finally 5 touching knots for the 100s. The strings were made of the wool of the alpaca or llama and dyed in various colours to represent different information. Those responsible for creating and deciphering the quipu knots were known as Quipucamayocs.

Ed: Did you make that word up? Quipucamayocs? Sounds like something on a Tex-Mex menu.

And now for a dance. The quadrille – a square dance of French origin in 6/8 or 2/4 time first introduced to England in 1808 and performed by four couples. It comprises five parts (or figures) which are called Le Pantalon, L’Été, La Poule, La Pastourelle and Finale. As can be seen in this cartoon of 1817, the complexities of the dance sometimes gave rise to mishaps!
Quadrille Dancing errors 1817
The quadrille must be one of the few dances to be performed not only by humans but also by horses. In fact, the equine quadrille preceded the dance by a couple of centuries. It began as a highly effective military manoeuvre and evolved into a display of skilled horsemanship for four horses and riders. Nowadays, equine quadrille is a choreographed dressage ride usually performed to music. A minimum of four horses are used but the number can be many more. There is also a version which includes the use of carriages. In 18th century French society, paired dancers replaced paired horses and the quadrille de contredanses was born.

Ed: There’s a suspiciously large number of French words in this article – have you been taking unauthorised trips on Le Eurostar?

And lastly from quadrille to Quadrivium. Meaning the ‘meeting of four roads’ (from the Latin), the Quadrivium was the higher division of the seven liberal arts taught in medieval universities. These studies were based on those pursued in the Classical world. The Liberal Arts divided into the Trivium (the lower division) consisting of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; and the Quadrivium (the higher division) which consisted of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.

To finish on a less erudite note, Quadrivium is also a flamboyant font (what, you thought I’d get through a whole article without mentioning a font? Not a chance.)

Ed: I don’t understand your obsession with fonts. Can I give you the number of my shrink?

Postscript: This is how this article looked when I tried it out in In-Design. Now if only I had the coding ability to make it look like this on a web page!

A Question of Q smallA Question of Q2 small


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