Daily Archives: April 21, 2009

quiddity

This is a fun word to look at, with its iddi like two torch-bearers side by side at a gate, and outside those first u and t – neighbours divided by the gate – and at the ends q (like a d turned down) and y (like the q popped). It seems strange and perhaps wants to party. But what is its essence? It does not refer to a ball game for wizards, or a quaint Newfoundland village, or a cephalopod, or some especially obtuse individual, nor is it a going rate for a cuppa. In fact, it has two rather different ambits of meaning. On the one hand, and originally, it refers to the inherent essence of a thing or person, its basic what-ness – quid is Latin for “what.” In this it has at times been opposed to haecceity, a word that makes me want to sneeze just looking at it (stress on the second of four syllables, by the way, if you try to say it); haecceity comes from haec “this” and refers to the this-ness of a thing: its present individuality. Haecceity is the particularity of a thing, what makes it not any other thing, whereas quiddity involves qualities that may inhere in other things as well and may define a genus. Haecceity was an important term for Duns Scotus, a very sharp medieval philosopher (known as Doctor Subtilis for his subtle thought) whose ideas and advocates fell out of favour during the 16th century; humanists used his name – ultimately persisting in the respelling dunce – first for sophists and hair-splitters and later for general dullards. And perhaps for digressers? Now where were we… Well, if you think the matter of haecceity a trivial point, a peculiarity, or a small nicety, then it may ironically be called a quiddity, for – here we get to the other hand, if you were waiting for it – this word now has been ushered into the company of the other quaint and curious qu words, with the help of alliterative phrases: quibbles and quiddities, quips and quiddities, quirks and quiddities… It generally refers to a subtle bit of wit, or perhaps simply a quip, but can also be a quirk of personality, something that makes a person sui generis… which would seem to be more of the haecceity than something of the quiddity. But we don’t want to get too subtle here.

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