“It’s such a cute little word!” Elisa Lively chirped, looking at the piece of paper Ross Ewage had just handed her.
I raised an eyebrow. Cute is not exactly Ross’s usual métier. Elisa held up the slip. “Quirt.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, “quite.”
“No,” Elisa said, “quirt! Not quite quite! It’s such a quick little chirp, like a small bird. Like… quirk. Or quart. Or maybe even quiet.”
“Don’t forget squirt,” Ross said.
“You know,” Elisa said, rotating the slip of paper, “I’d never really thought before of how qu rotates to nb.”
“Note that well,” I said.
“Of course, the rest of the word isn’t much to look at rotated,” she said. “But that q… What does it make me think of, shape-wise?”
“A little whip?” Ross offered. “Straight handle, the whip curled up, awaiting use…”
Elisa snorted. “A little squirt of whipped cream, maybe. Oh, this is such a cute, charming little word. Does it have anything to do with quarto?”
“Latin for fourth? Yes, by way of Spanish, it seems. Cuarto, which is the source for cuarta, which slipped into English and became quirt.”
“Noun or verb?” Elisa was champing at the bit.
“Noun, and a verb derived from it,” Ross said. “Here, let me read you some sentences using it cited in the OED.” He pulled another piece of paper from his pocket. “Here’s C. Winterfield in The American Review: ‘“Davis can tell,” said some one, in a loud voice. “Yes, he knows all about it,” said Fitz—“lets quirt him until he tells.”’ Here’s one from Hopalong Cassidy: ‘He says you did—an’ somebody quirted him.’”
“It sounds like tickling!” Elisa said.
“Here’s from Where the Wagon Led by R.D. Symons: ‘So I quirted that pony a couple of times.’”
Elisa pulled a little quizzical smile. “Really?”
“Teddy Roosevelt in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: ‘A first-class rider will sit throughout it all…quirting his horse all the time.’”
“Ooohh…” Elisa said. “For some reason that sounds kinda sick.”
“Here’s one with the noun, from The Look of the Old West by William Foster-Harris: ‘The cowboy’s quirt was ordinarily about 2 or 3 feet long, of plaited leather, though sometimes of stitched buckskin or woven horsehair.’” Ross smirked slightly.
“Oh, now, I really am all at sea,” Elisa said, beginning to look marginally queasy.
“If you were at sea,” Ross said, “you might be less likely to see a quirt or to be quirted with it. Depending on the kind of ship, I suppose.”
Elisa held the slip of paper in front of her gingerly now, as though ants might start crawling out of it. “I’m not going to like it, am I?”
Ross shrugged. “It’s a braided whip with a short handle. It seems to be named after the length of its handle, since a cuarta was a unit of measurement.”
Elisa looked sad. “It’s such a cute, quaint word… Oh dear.”
“Sometimes a cute thing can really smart,” Ross said, and took the piece of paper from her, ready to spring it on another victim.