Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Word Nerd Sez: Q is for ...


It's been shamefully long since my last Word Nerd entry, and I wish I could say it was because I was devoting myself to writing a quadrilogy, but I can't, since quadrilogy isn't even a word* and I wasn't writing one anyway. I did write an entire novel in November, as well as multiple business and biographical pieces throughout the fall, but not once during that time did I feel moved enough by the letter Q to examine a Q-word. It was a bit of a quandary, and I felt a few qualms about ignoring my Word Nerd duties, but I quashed them in order to keep working.**

Actually, I think my problem was in finding something interesting to say about a Q-word. Q words are so rare that we're familiar with most of them. (Maybe not quincunx, an arrangement of five things with four as the points of a rectangle and one in the center; try to make that in Scrabble!) To my rescue came an e-mail from A.Word.A.Day, a wonderful service that gives me a new word to contemplate at the beginning of every business day. The theme of the week was "words whose meanings have changed over time," and the word was quantum.

Quantum. Now there's a word with potential. Not only does it make me think of the most recent James Bond flick (Quantum of Solace) and thus the delectable Daniel Craig, but also about quantum physics and the uncertainty principle and not-dead-not-alive cats and all that craziness.*** And check out some of the meanings for quantum:
  1. A quantity or amount; a portion.
  2. A large amount. (think of the popular phrase quantum leap, for instance)
  3. The smallest amount of something that can exist independently. (think of quantum physics, which investigates the smallest particles)
The word comes from the Latin quantus, meaning "how much/how great," and over time the meaning has come to answer that question with two opposites: "a whole lot," and "a teeny tiny bit." If you think about it, though, the phrase "quantum jump/leap" comes from physics, and means "an abrupt change or sudden increase," such as that of an electron from one energy state to another, sometimes skipping a stage between. That doesn't necessarily mean a huge change, but we've simplified the physics so that it means "a big change" rather than "a sudden change."

Ouch. My brain is starting to hurt, so I think I'll stop there, except to mention that the plural of quantum is quanta, and I hope to use that in an actual real-world sentence some day.

*A four-volume series is a tetralogy, sadly for the letter Q.
**And thank goodness I didn't use
quandary or qualm, because both those word origins are "unknown," according to Webster's, and so they would have made for very short blog entries ... hey, now there's an idea!
***I read Stephen Hawking's
A Brief History of Time and it made my brain hurt, but it was a good hurt, like lifting weights.


  1. Q is my favorite letter. Not only because it appears as a surprise in my name, but because it's so rare. Plus, it's fun to write, especially in capital. Quite.

  2. You were quite quick to quip there, JacQUI.

  3. Very fun entry. I think I'm gonna cut and paste it to a nerdy friend of mine in an e-mail...

    If Hawking's original is too much, you could try again with "A Briefer History of Time'. It's kind of abridged, but still made my head hurt.

    Here's to us taking quanta leaps forward in our writing! (?)