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shameless pleading


And where it flew, I have no clue.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if there was any relation between the word “quiver” as a holster for arrows and “quiver” as a shaking of the body from being scared or cold. — Graydon.

Whoa, synchronicity city, dude. I was just, this evening, watching a rerun of the Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon was playing Wii archery with Leonard. In the course of the game he mentioned that his father taught him to shoot a bow and now he has olfactory flashbacks of Kmart bourbon whenever he plays the Wii version. I don’t think Kmart actually sells bourbon, but I’ve never actually looked, so they may. Anyway, I was told I would like this show, and I sometimes do, but I have to watch it with closed captions on and the sound turned way down¬† because the laugh-track makes me seasick. Those people will laugh at anything.

This is all relevant because, as a nod to authenticity, Sheldon insisted that Leonard mime the action of pulling each imaginary arrow from an imaginary quiver slung across his back before each shot. Having been deeply into archery for a few months as a yoot, as they say in Brooklyn, I found this quite believable. I had a weirdly medieval suede quiver apparently designed to evoke fantasies of being a pint-sized Robin Hood, which I definitely wasn’t.

Of the two “quivers,” this is the older, a noun meaning “a case, usually tubular, for holding arrows.” It first appeared in English in the early 14th century, adapted from the Anglo-Norman “quivere,” from the Old French “quivre.” Further back are Germanic roots that also produced the English word “cocker,” which is now obsolete but in the early 8th century appeared meaning the same thing as “quiver” does today. In addition to its literal use in the world of archery, “quiver” is commonly used figuratively to mean “repository, resources or collection,” a metaphorical “arsenal,” or simply “bag of tricks” (“The remaining S&P companies … keep their profit outlook under wraps, and this is the information that analysts ultimately have in their quiver,” Barron’s, 2011).

“Quiver” in this “arrow case” sense can also be used as a verb meaning “to put arrows in a quiver,” but the other, more common, “quiver” verb is utterly unrelated to arrows. This “quiver” first appeared in English in the late 15th century meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, “to shake, tremble, or vibrate with a slight rapid motion … to make a movement of this kind as an expression of cold, rage, fear, etc.” The verb “to quiver” can also be used transitively to mean “to cause to vibrate or tremble” or, more often, “to produce in or by quivering; to utter or give out in a trembling voice” (OED). This “speak or sing with a shaky voice” sense covers “quivering” both from shock or fear (“‘No!’ quivered out poor Mary, scarcely conscious that she spoke,” 1849) or simply because your voice is not ready for prime¬† time (“The middle-aged, stubble-bearded piano player in the red jacket quivering out the ‘song’ from Philadelphia in a wimpy falsetto,” 1994).

The origin of the “shaking” kind of “quiver” is uncertain, but it’s likely that it arose as a variant of the somewhat earlier “to quaver,” also meaning “to tremble or quiver,” especially trilling in one’s voice or in playing a musical instrument (“He quavers in his musical Aires melodiously,” 1665). “Quaver” is based on the verb “to quave,” dating to the 13th century and meaning, predictably, “to shake or quake.” At this point the trail runs cold, and the origin of “quave” is a mystery, although it may be related in a remote, foggy fashion to the verb “to quake,” which would make sense.

1 comment to Quiver

  • chirodoc

    Quaver sounds so much waver, that I am surprised that it didn’t occur to our erstwhile Word Detective whether or not there might be a connection.

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