Lost in (transatlantic) translation

The Monitor's language columnist reflects on the diplomatic ambiguity of 'quite.'

A British reporter's question at a White House briefing reveals how an everyday word means different things on either side of the Atlantic.

While attempting to defuse the rumor that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton might replace Vice President Joe Biden as President Obama's running mate in 2012, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described Mr. Obama a few days ago as "quite pleased" with Ms. Clinton's work at State.

It was an unusual press briefing in that it was off camera. Nowadays, of course, such briefings are usually on camera, which means they are dominated by television reporters looking to bag a "gotcha" moment.

But Mr. Gibbs was trying something different, going back to an old style of briefings, where reporters asked questions, and the presidential spokespeople, or in some cases the actual president, answered them. How quaint. When we think back to presidents known for getting along well with the press – Kennedy and FDR come to mind – we go back to a period when off camera was the norm. But I digress.

In the mellower atmosphere prevailing during the Gibbsian experiment, there was time for a question from a British journalist who sought to follow up on Gibbs's "quite pleased" comment. As Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reported the exchange, the reporter said, "I take it you mean that in the American sense of 'very pleased.' As you know, in British English that is a very qualified assessment of 'reasonably pleased.' "

This was greeted with laughter, which doesn't reflect well on the well-read-ness of the Washington press corps, especially since the reporter had used the polite "as you know" device. Here's Mr. Milbank again, quoting the Briton: "I'm serious…. If I were to quote you, 'quite pleased,' it is highly qualified."

But Gibbs had to acknowledge that the question had knocked the words out of him. "Somebody should – somebody – somebody should record this moment as the moment that I became speechless. And 'cc' my dad." He recovered in time to pronounce the president "enormously pleased" with the work of the secretary of State.

But was the British journalist on to something? The word quite, one of our hardworking English monosyllabic adverbs, goes back to the early 14th century. It conveys the idea of "free and clear" – in the context of a debt discharged, a duty done, or a role fulfilled. Quite is related to quit, as in "quit-claims deed," and acquit, in legal and other senses. Quite originally meant "thoroughly," which is presumably what Gibbs used it to mean the other day.

But the weaker sense of "fairly" had crept in by the 19th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Now if that weaker sense were principally a British usage, that would suggest that quite follows a pattern whereby Americans often stick with an older usage of a word that evolves differently in Britain. But I'm not quite ready to declare this just a British usage. A quick check shows that the "rather" or "somewhat" definition of quite is present in both American and British dictionaries. The "quick definitions" entry for quite at the metasearch dictionary site onelook.com, for instance, defines quite thus: "to the greatest extent; completely." The second definition is "to a degree (not used with a negative)," with the usage example of "quite tasty."

Anyone who has ever felt a need to make encouraging noises about someone else's cooking will appreciate the diplomatic ambiguity inherent in the two meanings.

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