Visiting a few old friends

Posted: Oct 30, 2006 12:01 AM

It's mailbag time! Bradford O'Connor of Lacey, Wash., asks for a ruling on "quality" as an adjective, e.g., "that loaf of bread is a quality product." The proper response is: Aaargh! In an orderly world, "quality" would be treated with the respect that is owed to a 600-year-old noun.

How did "quality" get to be an adjective? In 1936 or thereabouts, the gurus of Merriam-Webster counted their citations and declared that a rite of passage had occurred. "Quality" had lost its virginity. After all these years, it's too late to undo the done, but fastidious writers and editors will continue to sniff at the usage.

The late great John Bremner, professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, felt so strongly on the matter that many years ago he posted a sign in his classroom: "Quality is NOT an adjective!" Lexicographer Bryan Garner disdains the usage: "When used as an adjective meaning 'of high quality,' this is a vogue word in a class with 'cutting edge,' 'gravitas,' 'quantum leap' and 'meaningful.'"

In their Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985), William and Mary Morris were more tolerant: "Some people," they said, object to treating "quality" as an adjective, "but it is standard practice in English." Well, kindly count this critic among the "some people." Our name is Legion, to coin a phrase, because we are many.

Tom Jones (real name) of Tucson, Ariz., asks for comment on degrees of unclothedness. A young woman's "nude body" had been found in the nearby mountains. Out of "prurient curiosity," he inquires about acceptable usage. Specifically, what's the difference between "nude" and "naked"?

What to say? Every male lover of language begins looking up dirty words at age 6 or 7 and gets to "nude" and "nudity" before he's 8. The distinctions are of academic interest.

Merriam-Webster's first definition of "nude" evidently was drafted by a 90-year-old monk who worked from a carrel in Tibet. It reads: "lacking something essential to legal validity, e.g., a nude contract." There are times, honestly, when dear old M-W is no help at all. Other lexicographers lead us to such distant synonyms as "bald," "barren," "starkers," "in the buff" and "without a stitch."

The workhorse word, of course, is plain-vanilla "naked." Remarkably, Bartlett's Quotations offers 49 citations of "naked" and not a single one of "nude." The most famous of these goes back to the Garden of Eden, where the first couple "were both naked and were not ashamed." Shakespeare lent the adjective to Richard III: "... And thus I clothe my naked villainy." Goya painted his "Naked Maja," a lady who might usefully have shed a few redundant pounds.

Manifestly, "naked" and "nude" are seldom interchangeable. It never would have occurred to Shakespeare to write about Richard's "nude" villainy. The line would not have scanned. References to the "nude truth" lose their sting. Writers learn such distinctions in their cradles. Moll Flanders was naked; Lady Godiva was nude.

Bud Weil of Las Vegas writes to ask about "free gift" and "for free." Viewed under the cold light of grammatical analysis, the phrases are patently redundant. It would be a strange kind of gift that was not "free." And the fawning "for" adds nothing to the 13th oyster on the platter. That beautiful bivalve was born "free" and comes to the table the same way: i.e., built into the eye-popping price on the seafood menu.