Quips on Quite

I say this word quite a lot. If you are American, or at least within my personal lexical sphere, then you understand that this word is accessed quite often in my everyday speech. To someone from London (I can’t say if this interpretation of this word extends to the UK or Great Britain) it is understood as something a bit different.

We were out with a Londoner friend and she remarked, “you must be careful when you use that word, you might offend somebody”. She was talking about “quite” and was quite serious. To her, using “quite” as an adjective does not serve the same purpose as “very” or “really”. In fact, “quite” to her makes the meaning closer to “OK” or “not bad”. So when I told her that her apartment was “quite nice”, and the concert was “quite fun”, and the food was “quite good”, and that we had “quite a fun night”, she was starting to go mental, as they say.

She finally figured out that I was sincere in my remarks and that we had all just experienced a classic case of you say tomato and I say tomato. It doesn’t have the same ring on paper but I trust you know what I mean.

Share your favorite US vs UK débâcles! US spelling only!

Just kidding.

No I’m not.

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11 comments

  1. Adam

    ‘Pissed’ was one that my Northern Ireland flatmates had a hard time adjusting to, and I tended to forget their meaning for the word at times. I would occasionally say ‘pissed off,’ meaning angry, but they used ‘pissed’ to mean drunk. While those two meanings can overlap, they don’t always. That made for somewhat amusing misunderstandings, especially after the consumption of alcohol when the misunderstanding would usually be more drawn out.

  2. Ha, yea, Adam that one gets us in the US quite a bit. I can see where the conversation might get exciting especially when seasoned with a few pints!
    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Here’s a true story of tomato vs. tomato for you:

    When I first started interpreting, I would get strange looks from my British colleagues whenever I said the word “laboratory”. One day, one of them told me why: because the American pronunciation of the word (LAB-ruh-tohr-ee) sounds to them like “lavatory” (LAV-uh-tohr-ee). Ha ha. This colleague recommended that I use the British pronunciation instead (luh-BOR-uh-tree). At which point I got pissed (!) and decided to say “lab” – and so I continue, to this day …

    • Ha!
      That one is a new one on me! I sometimes have trouble keeping those two straight but it has never come up in conversation! Thanks for the comment!

  4. Google Alerts led me here because we share the Shavian quote. In case you’re interested, I’ve also written about ‘quite’ (and over 400 other differences between American and British Englishes!).

    The ‘quite’ ones are here:
    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2008/07/quite.html
    and here:
    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/05/quite-wh.html
    Meanwhile, I’ll tweet a link to this post…

    • Hi Lynne,
      Thanks for the comment, I have read a few posts of yours and I love the tone and voice you present in them. Great work, (the few I’ve read)! I look forward to more! And to digging through the archives 🙂

  5. Doris

    Yes – the use of quite in British English is often tinged with hints of irony or sarcasm. Quite nice might well have undertones of “that was dreadful, but I’m not going to be that blunt”. Even if it’s not being used with that nuance, it gives the flavour of “not entirely” – so if it was quite good, it wasn’t really good. Having said, that, there will always be the times when it is employed as a device of humorous understatement too – rather than gushing superlatives we will say that was “quite satisfactory” which is actually enormous praise. A very culturally laden term and not one I’d thought about as a native Brit before, so I thank you for the ruminations it produced, as well as a heads up of it being so less nuanced in the US!

    • Hi Doris,
      Thanks for commenting. The irony or sarcasm that I love about British speak is unfortunately lost in the American usage of “quite”. A parallel might be found in the modifier “pretty” as in “How is the soup? It’s pretty good”. Of course one must always take context and emphasis into consideration but generally this use of “pretty” is like being complimented on your hand-writing on your latest book. As far as I know, it is this way in the UK as well; perhaps you could enlighten me? 🙂
      Thanks again!

  6. Roger

    This is one fo my favourite AmE/BrE differences. I got some funny looks from my (Londoner) mother-in-law when I said our wedding reception was “quite” nice. To my American brain using quite felt more British or formal than just “very” – so I actually used it quite a lot.

    I eventually read about this in a book a couple years later and realised what happened.

    I also have vague memories of my college Chinese professor trying to explain a Chinese phrase as meaning “quite good” when clearly it meant “not too bad.”

    • Hi Roger,

      Thanks for the comment. It is possible that your Chinese professor was clinging more to the British usage of “quite” when s/he was coming up with an adequate explanation of the Chinese proverb. As for “not too bad”, I personally use this phrase a lot but not as much as I use “not terrible” or “not terrible at all” when describing things that are really really really quite good. My hyperbolic attempts at irony. Eg, “We just won two tickets to game 7 of the World Series right behind the plate!” “Wow, that’s not terrible at all.” Perhaps not the best example, but I hope you catch my drift 🙂

      PS-It seems your Londoner side of the family is rubbing off on you orthographically…realised… 🙂

  7. Pingback: Tricky Words: Lest | roughly translated

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