Step on it.

Dear Word Detective:  Knowing how obsessively I await your columns, my friend got me a word-of-the-day calendar.  Last Friday’s word was “quash,” in the legal sense.  According to them it is a word derived from a Middle French word meaning “to annul” (they don’t actually say the French word).  Also it is mentioned that this is an entirely different word from the “quash,” meaning “to smash,” which comes from a Middle English word which means “to suppress or extinguish.”  Considering how similar the meanings of all four words are, I was wondering if perhaps there was an older connection between the two dating to pre-Middle English or French? — Diana T.

“Quash” is an interesting word, or words, as the case may be, especially if we redefine “interesting” to encompass “infuriating.”  The two sorts of “quash” mentioned by your calendar  are indeed “different words” in that they have different histories, but those histories are themselves entangled to such an extent that some dictionaries (the Oxford English Dictionary among them) regard both “quashes” as the same word.  It’s probably most accurate to describe the two kinds of “quash” as twins who were raised in different families, but the families lived next door to each other.  (Does anyone else smell a sitcom in that sentence?)

Using that metaphor, the parent, or perhaps grandparent, of both our littles “quashes” was the Medieval Latin verb “quassare,” which means “to shatter,” and is a derivative of “quatere,” meaning “to shake” (which gave us “concussion,” “percussion,” and other words).  This produced various forms in Middle French such as “quasser.”

This lineage produced the oldest sense of “quash” in English, first appearing in the 13th century, with the literal meaning of “to crush or destroy something physically” or “to break  something into pieces.”   Figuratively, this “quash” meant “to put down, stifle or subdue” something, and used today in everything from political news (where rebellions are often “quashed”) to sports coverage.

The other sort of “quash,” a legal term meaning “to annul, to make void; to reject as invalid” (“The court quashed the subpoena”) has the same source, but took a slight detour in Medieval Latin.  In addition to “quassare” (“to shatter”), there was “cassare,” which meant “to destroy,” derived from the Latin adjective “cassus,” meaning “empty.”  Making the situation even more confusing was the fact that “cassare” was sometimes spelled “quassare,” giving folks two different words, very close in meaning, that were spelled identically.  The legal “annul” sense of “quash” is thought either to come from, or to have been heavily influenced by this second “quassare.”  So you could argue that these are two different words, but in practical terms they have become one.

On a lighter, far less complicated note, this whole tangle also gave us the English word “squash” in the sense “to smash or crush” (and eventually the game “squash,” the name of which originally referred to the soft rubber ball).  “Squash,” the vegetable, is completely unrelated to any of this, and takes its name from the Algonquian Indian word “askutasquash.”

Page 1 of 2 | Next page