Pete and Re-Pete go sailing.*
Dear Word Detective: “Quaint,” to me, means “somewhat outmoded, a little peculiar, and yet oddly appealing” — kind of like the word itself. But in thinking about it, I wondered if it is related to “acquaint.” If so, it would seem that “quaint” originally meant something like “familiar” or “well-known.” Am I even close? — Charles Anderson.
That’s a great question. English is full of words that sound as if they might be related in some way, and it’s a toss-up whether the pairs that actually are are more or less interesting than the pairs that aren’t. I tend to think that the best cases are actually words that are related, but mean such different things today that the connection between them leads the explorer down a twisted and nearly impenetrable path.
“Hearse” and “rehearse,” for instance, come from the same Latin root “hirpex,” meaning “rake.” In Old French, the derivative “herse” came to mean the “rake-like” metal frame that held candles in a church, especially over a coffin during a funeral, and eventually “hearse” in English came to mean the carriage that carries the deceased to the funeral. Meanwhile, that literal “rake” sense of “herse” gave us “rehercer” in French, “rehearse” in 14th century English, meaning “to rake again,” i.e., “to say over and over again” in preparation for a performance.
“Quaint” and “acquaint” also share a Latin root, but although their paths diverged early on, these two words never wandered as far apart in meaning as “hearse” and “rehearse” did. The ultimate source of both is the Latin verb “cognoscere,” meaning “to know,” also the root of “cognition,” “cognizance” and related words.
In the case of “acquaint,” the verb “cognoscere” further developed into “accognoscere,” meaning “to know well,” which passed through Old French as “acointer” and eventually produced, in the late 13th century, our English word “acquaint.” The initial sense of “acquaint” in English was simply “to make oneself known, to introduce yourself,” but it soon took on the sense of “to become familiar with, get to know” as one might “acquaint” oneself with one’s new neighbors. This use is now largely obsolete, replaced by the more cumbersome “to become acquainted with.” Another sense that developed, still very much in use today, was “acquaint” meaning “to gain personal knowledge of,” as in “At lunch I decided to acquaint myself with the restaurants in the neighborhood.”
“Quaint” veered off the path followed by “acquaint” back in Old French, where the Latin “cognoscere” had also produced “coint,” an adjective meaning “clever or knowing.” When “quaint” appeared in English in the early 13th century, it meant, of a person, “cunning” or “ingenious,” and, of a thing, “elaborate” or “finely made” (i.e., produced by a skilled artist). These senses are all obsolete now. But by the 14th century, “quaint” had also come to mean “remarkable or unusual” and “mysterious,” which eventually gave us our modern meaning of “attractively unusual in appearance or character” and (the most common meaning today) “pleasingly old-fashioned.”
So “quaint” and “acquaint” were indeed closely related at the starting line, but have been running on different routes for hundreds of years.
* Smatteryou? You were never 10 years old? Pete and Re-Pete went out in a boat. Pete fell out and who was left?