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Q&A

How did 'quibus?' shift to mean 'evasion of a point at issue'?

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quibble [17]

_Quibble _probably originated as a rather ponderous learned joke-word. It is derived from an earlier and now obsolete _quib _‘pun’, which appears to have been based on quibus, the dative and ablative plural of Latin quī ‘who, what’. The notion is that since quibus made frequent appearances in legal documents written in Latin, it became associated with pettifogging points of law.

Word Origins (2005 2e) by John Ayto, p 408 Left column.

quibble (n.)

1610s, "a pun, a play on words," probably a diminutive of obsolete quib "evasion of a point at issue" (1540s), which is based on Latin quibus? "by what (things)?" Its extensive use in legal writing supposedly gave it the association with trivial argument: "a word of frequent occurrence in legal documents ... hence associated with the 'quirks and quillets' of the law." [OED].

Latin quibus is dative or ablative plural of quid "in what respect? to what extent?; how? why?," neuter of relative pronoun quis (from PIE root *kwo-, stem of relative and interrogative pronouns).

The Word Detective also doesn't expound the semantic shift. I quote W. Rothwell's A Mere Quibble? Multilingualism and English Etymology published online on 9 Jan 2007, p 181.

The historical dictionaries of English show that 'quibble' poses a problem for the etymologists. The OED^17 offers no firm etymology for it, its first attestation in its modern sense of 'an equivocation, evasion of the point' coming from 1670, almost three and a half centuries later than the kevel of the Year Book. An earlier, now obsolete, sense of 'a play on words, a pun' is attested for 1611, with the verb 'to quibble' recorded for 1629, which might indicate that an earlier date for the noun could eventually come to light, since it is common practice for verbs to be derived from existing nouns. The dictionary suggests that 'quibble' may be a diminutive of the obsolete noun 'quib', attested 'a[nte] 1550', which it derives from the Latin quibus '"who, which", as a word of frequent occurrence in legal documents and hence associated with the quirks and quillets "of the law"'. However, the special relationship claimed between quibus and the 'quirks and quillets of the law' is not explained, and the proposed etymology will not stand serious scrutiny. The Latin quibus is a common term widely used outside legal documents, an everyday word belonging to the general register of the lexis without any particular concentration in legal works.

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Skeat's Etymological Dictionary offers a competing theory which I find more persuasive: "quib", in the sense of a taunt or mock, could be a phonological weakening of "quip" (or "quippy"), still in the sense of a mock ("quip" attested in this sense by 1552). English "quip" would then be from Latin "quippe", from hypothetical earlier "quidpe", both meaning "indeed". The transition from "indeed" to "a mock" is supposed to be ironical use (a bit like current day English interjectional use of "Indeed!" may often be ironic), and the origin of Latin "quippe" is found in the already familiar "quid" and "-pe".


The theory that "quib" rather comes from "quibus" gives me a gut feeling of an 18th century invention, i.e., an impression of a theory about English/Latin contact formulated long after the fact by people still familiar with 16th century Latin at a time when Latin has long been replaced by English in contexts of legal interest. One can't really argue with a theory that a word was taken from another language just because "it occurred there often". This particular theory has been repeated so often that the more recent, more casual versions of it are starting to obscure even the little that can be said in favor of the theory, namely the typical function and spelling of "quibus" in 16th century far-from-just-legal Latin texts.

Which isn't an interrogative pronoun "Quibus?", but a relative pronoun written as "quib" or "quib." and pronounced as "quibus". Excessive use of contractions in a difficult to read Latin text could have perhaps attracted some mockery in its time. Relative pronouns do help to produce some convoluted complex sentences. "Quibus" has the same ending for any grammatical gender and for two otherwise distinct cases, so it can be rather unclear, in an excessively complex sentence and in a language with free word order, which noun it stands for.

(I love how Google Translate chokes on all the quibuses of the following book title, provided here as a random, actually rather tame and continental, sample of the effect for your potential entertainment.)

Epistolarum D. Philippi Melanchthonis Farrago, in Partes tres distributa: Quarum Prima, varias materias Theologicas continet. Secunda, familiares Epistolas habet, quib. plures cùm domesticae, tum publicae res exponuntur. Tertia, ex diversis doctorum ac praestantium virorum Epistolis constat, quib. non solum privata, sed etiam Ecclesiastica & Politica negotia tractatur: A Ioanne Manlio passim collecta, & in comunem studiosorum atq; piorum usum nunc primum publicata.

But the theory still smells. Few English speaking people could read by 1540. Why would any real world mockery target the written form, and not the spoken form, of "quibus"?

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