Issue 160, page 1
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When the British divide something into four pieces they get four quarters. But when the same operation is conducted in the US the result is unpredictable - one may end up with four fourths. On the face of it, it seems unlikely that fourth and quarter are related by anything but their meaning but they derive from the same word. The ancient Indo-European word *kwetwor- became *fedwor- in Old Germanic, feower in Old English and, eventually, four in Modern English. Latin also developed from Indo-European and *kwetwor- gave Latin such words as quatuor "four" and quadra "square". Here are a few words with unexpected "four" connections.
A carillon is a set of bells, tuned so that melodies may be played upon them. The earliest varieties had only four bells, hence the French term carillon, from Medieval Latin quadrillionem "a set of four".
A quire is a quantity (normally twenty-four sheets) of writing material. The term originally referred to four sheets of parchment or paper folded together to form eight leaves, a common unit in mediaeval manuscripts. The name comes from Medieval Latin quaternus "a set of four" which became quaier in Old French and quire in English. A descendant of quaier survives in Modern French as cahier, "a notebook". Somewhat perversely, cahier may also mean "a quire of six sheets".
Latin quadrum "a square" became quadro in Italian then cadre in Old French, by which time the meaning had shifted from "square" to "picture frame". (In Modern French it means "tally".) After entering English, cadre developed several new meanings, including: "a frame", "a framework", "the framework of officers who form the basis of a regiment", "the entire complement of officers in a regiment", "a group of communist workers" or "a member of such a group".
A quarry is a place where, literally speaking, pieces of stone are given four sides. The origin of quarry is found in the Latin verb quadrare, "to cut [stone] into squares".
A firkin is a small cask used for fish, butter or liquids (notably beer). It is also a unit of volume, there being (as every schoolchild knows) two firkins to one kilderkin. Its earliest (1400s) known form was ferdekyn, a borrowing from the Middle Dutch vierdekijn, "little fourth".
Mosaics are made of tiny colored squares of tile, glass or marble called tesserae, so called because of their four sides. In Classical Greek, *kwetwor- became tetra, but in Ionic Greek the word for "four" was tessera.
A quarantine is a period of forty days (from Italian quaranta "forty"). Nowadays it is used only to denote a period of isolation to prevent the spread of disease but in earlier times it could be used more generally.
Oh well, it's time for us to tidy up our quarters and get the reference books squared away.
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