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Give no quarter

Q From Carl: Recently, I had a person ask me the etymology of to give no quarter. What bothers me is that I can find no rationale for connecting quarter in its sense of one-fourth to its meanings of living space or accepting the surrender of a vanquished enemy.

A The idiom is certainly odd. So far as I can understand, it’s the result of a series of shifts in meaning and the growth of various idioms which took place in the period from late medieval times into the seventeenth century.

In the fourteenth century, quarter added to its basic meaning of the fourth part of something by taking on a sense of one of the four principal divisions of the horizon or the points of the compass. It then seems to have transferred to one of the four quarters of a city, in particular one occupied by a specific group (as we might still today speak of “the French quarter”), not literally meaning one fourth of the area, but a rough direction based on the four main compass points. The same meaning was applied to one section of an army camp. So quarter came to have attached to it the idea of an area in which one lived, and further shifts of meaning seem to have taken place that lead to quarters (in the plural) for one’s living accommodation, especially in military contexts.

There seem to have been one or two further stages. By the 1590s an idiom to keep good quarters with had grown up, meaning to have good relations with a person, presumably a reference to the need to stay on good terms with those living with or around you — Shakespeare used it in The Comedy of Errors in 1590 in a way that showed he was having fun with an expression already well known. So to give no quarter might have meant “don’t show any friendliness to the enemy”. It’s possible also that to give quarters could refer to the need to provide prisoners with a place to stay, so that to give no quarter was a figurative way of saying “take no prisoners”.

It’s all a bit obscure from this distance, but the essence of it seems to be there.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Oct. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 2 October 1999.