Iva Cheung, walking through the quad at Simon Fraser University, asked herself why the open yards of universities are called quads. Yes, yes, of course it’s short for quadrangle, but we don’t speak of Times Quadrangle, do we? Are university quadrangles notably other than square or at least rectangular? Can other parallelogram or even rhomboid college quads be found?

Mm-hmm, yes. It takes some looking, but in fact they can.

Most North American universities that have grassy areas called quads do indeed have rectilinear borders, although there are some notable exceptions – have a look at the Freshman Quad at Johns Hopkins University. A quad is, originally and tout court, a yard bordered by buildings at an educational institution, but these days we may be inclined to reserve the term for those actually so named, such as the residential and academic quads at my graduate alma mater, Tufts University (the academic quad is shaped rather more like a flattened stuffed duffle bag). However, those are more loosely quads in another sense: they are not actually fully walled in by buildings, as was originally the case – quads were first of all courtyards. They have buildings around them, yes, but gaps too, just as Harvard Yard does.

One good place to find odd quads is Oxford University. One of the oldest quads is at Merton College, Oxford; it is a bit of turf that was over time enclosed by student residential buildings. The grass came later, as did the now-common name for it, Mob Quad. But there are quite a few quads at Oxford. And, thanks to the non-rectilinear street layout, some of them are a bit off-kilter. Have a look at Oriel College, for instance.

So, again, why quad? Well, given that a square is a town meeting place (so the name is a bit common) and a square formally must have equal sides, and given that a rectangle must be perfectly rectilinear, and given that a university is a high-toned place where one at least used to study Latin and even study in Latin – study the great avenues of the trivium and quadrivium – quadrangle seems entirely apposite. It’s a technically correct architectural term, so there.

And given that the toffs who have long been the key denizens of Oxford and its sister Cambridge have had a habit of jauntily truncating Latin words (e.g., mob for mobile vulgus) – but only inasmuch as it would not be infra dig, you know – quad is very much to be expected.

But the truncating toffee-noses are not the only ones to trim a Latin term, and the open-topped parallelepipeds of Oxbridge are not the only things called quads. There’s a whole squad of quads, in fact. In typesetting (and don’t say “what’s that,” even if almost no one does it literally anymore), a quad is a quadrat, a square block of metal used for filling space; in telecommunications it’s a quadruplex, a set of four wires twisted together; obviously in housing it’s also a quadruplex; in some British colloquialism it’s a horse, because a quadruped; in boat racing it’s a large four-sided jib; it’s also the quadriceps muscle, which are those massive things that make up the tops of your thighs (I run, so my quads are my best muscles; you can also build your quads by doing squats); a quad is also a quadruplet or a quadriplegic. Which means that the quadriceps of a quadriplegic quadruplet who lives in a quadruplex on a quadrangle are a quad quad’s quads in a quad on a quad.

Oh. My. Quad.

But now here’s one for you. What is a quad when viewed from the other way?

Why, it’s a panb, of course. Turn it around and you’ll see.

3 responses to “quad

  1. Should be a ‘penb’ viewed from the other way, should it not?

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