Bill Long 10/11/04
This is not a mini-essay on the origin of the term "quirk" or "quirky." Indeed, the OED says it is "of obscure origin and history." What it is, however, is a sort of a plea to recapture some of the variety and reach of words whose meaning has been telescoped into one signification in our vocabulary today. For example, if you were to survey 100 people about the meaning of "quirky," I think the sole definition people would give would be something that is "strange" or "flaky" or "weird," such as a quirky person. Indeed, a well-attested meaning of quirky is "characterized by certain unexpected and often unspecified traits; idiosyncratic; peculiar." But a few moments of patient attention to the word can fill out our collapsed linguistic balloon or, in other words, enrich our impoverished vocabulary.
Quirk as a Turn or Twist
In the early 17th century there is an attestation which the OED says was probably original: quirk as a "sudden twist, turn or curve, especially in drawing or writing; a flourish." Ben Jonson used the term in a memorable way: "Some young Frenchman...That ...Knew every quirke within lusts laborinth." Thus, a quirk would be a sinuous or serpentine turn. The "handwriting" meaning of the word is captured in Horace Bushnell's (the 19th century New England Congregational theologian) words: "Write a large, full, regular, and free hand. Bring in no quirks and flourishes." Thus, a quirk is not something that necessarily resides in nature apart from us; we can produce them through our own handwriting and doodles on paper.
Quirk as Witty "Turn," Retort, Quip or Verbal Subtlety
When this more visual notion is clearly established, we can take it into realms more philosophical or intellectual. Shakespeare, in Much Ado About Nothing, uses the following language to suggest a witticism or humorous event, "I may chance have some odde quirkes and remnants of witte broken on me."
But an ability to turn a phrase or retort with skill is a species of a larger intellectual ability to be able to "quibble" or use verbal "turns" or tricks in argumentation and conversation. It is understandable how this meaning for quirk would have grown up in the 17th century, as issues of the truth of religious doctrine and the resulting evasive quirks would have been a staple of Puritan and other preaching. Indeed use of quirks might be an indication that the person was under the conviction of sin as well as that s/he was trying to evade the "truth" of what was being proclaimed. Thus, in a 17th century exposition of II Peter, the author said, "It is not enough to have quirks of wit, but soundness of doctrine." A person could be said to "pervert solid sense with artful querks and impudence." In a more liberal theological climate in the mid 19th century, Disraeli could still connect the word quirk with religion: "A true feeling of religion does not depend on the quirks and quibbles of human reasonings."
Minding our "Q's"
It dawned upon me while writing this that maybe quirk/quirky because of its initial sound tends to attract other like-minded "q's" to it. A quirk can be a quibble or a dispute over some subtle or obscure point. Then, because it is a dispute over something that may be rather obscure, one can call it a quiddity ("a captious nicety in argument"), such as in the 16th century attestation, "They invent quirkes and quiddities, shiftes, and put-offes ynough to blinde the eies of the magistrates." When a quirk is a retort, it can also be a quip ("a sharp or sarcastic remark directed against a person"). But a quirk can be differentiated from a "turning," which I discussed at length in my article on trophy, in that the latter is provoked by the "turning" of the tide in battle (and hence, the place where the monument or trophy is placed) while the former seems to emphasize the quickness of the turn or quirk. A quirk may include all the elements of subtlety in argument, witty retort, evasiveness or obscurity, but when we use it we stress the mental agility of the quirky person. Thus, we have a linguistic field far more useful and productive than simply one which would see quirk as "strange."
An Architectural Usage
My love affair with architectural terms has also yielded a fruitful harvest with quirk, for it can also be defined as "an acute hollow between the convex part of certain moldings and the soffit or fillet." Well, we can really get carried away here, in a number of directions, but let's limit it for now to only one point. In classical architecture, as Donald Rattner points out, there were 14 types of moldings. Much as I would love to go into all 14 RIGHT NOW and give pictures and meanings to all, I will not do so. However, in one of the moldings, called the ovolo, a convex-style molding (a molding is the ornamentation in the cornice or topmost part of a building, though the base of columns also has molding), the space between the bottom of the convex curve and the beginning of the next section of the molding often turns back upon itself. Thus, there is the slightest "s" curve at the bottom of the ovolo. This is significant because the almost concave lower part of the ovolo molding, for example, doesn't attract as much light and so appears darker.
And, this section of the lower part of the molding is called the quirking. How wonderfully quirky. We can connect the word not only to original signification as a "turn," because the quirking is where the end of the convex curve of the ovolo "turns," but also, because of the lesser amount of light that will reach the quirking, it carries with it the notion of "darkness" or "obscurity." Thus, just as the apophyge gave me a vivid picture of the shaft of the column "fleeing" into the base or capital, so quirking gives me a vivid sense of the "turn that brings darkness" or "obscurity" to the base of a molding.
Professor Rattner has said that one of the reasons people may find Greek architectural styles, especially columns, attractive in our century is that these columns suggest not simply a geometrical but also a natural reality. There is geometry, to be sure, and you can calculate all the ratios you want. But there is also a human or natural reality captured in the architecture, that realizes that a combination of curves and straight lines, compensation for visual defects, and rich floral patterns combined with sharp edges allows for a deeper human "connection" with the building. Then, when we also have pregnant words in English to vivify a potentially dead building, we have a world that is alive with meaning and grace.