“Quality” (adj.)

On holiday in London last week, I was gobsmacked to come upon this:


The reason for my surprise was that, on my mother’s knee, I was taught that quality should not be used as an adjective but exclusively as a noun referring to a feature or characteristic of a person or thing. I haven’t been on my mother’s knee for a long time, but the injunction is still widespread. Bryan Garner’s entry on the word in Garner’s Modern American Usage reads, in its entirety: “When used as an adjective meaning ‘of high quality,’ this is a vogue word and a casualism <a quality bottling company>. Use good or fine or some other adjective of better standing.” For decades, one of the easiest and most efficient ways for novelists to convey that a character is a philistine has been to have him say something like, “I’m talking quality products here!”

But now I was seeing evidence that in England, quality is an adjective of perfectly good standing. It was meaningful that the sign was at a pub, for everything about this institution is supposed to signify history and tradition. In other words, the implication was that the usage had been OK for a long time.

And when I got home and checked my Oxford English Dictionary, I found that that is the case. The process started as early as Shakespeare, with the noun being used to mean high quality (“The Grecian youths are full of quality, And swelling ore with arts and exercise”) or, similarly, high birth or rank (“There are no men of quality but the Duke of Monmouth; all the rest are gentlemen,” 1671).

The adjective emerged roughly in 1700,  meaning, in the OED‘s words: “With sense ‘of high social standing, of good breeding, noble’, as quality acquaintance, quality air, quality blood, quality end, quality friend, quality gentleman, quality horse, quality lady, quality living, quality pride, quality white, etc.” There are many citations in the 18th century (“The influence of Peregrine’s new quality-friends”—Smollett, Peregrine Pickle), but starting in the early 19th, according to the dictionary, this usage became “archaic.” The archaicness seems to have commenced being reversed in the United States; the OED cites a 1910 headline in an Ohio newspaper, “American is the quality magazine.” In Britain it became common in the 1960s to refer to The Times, The Guardian, and such as “quality newspapers,” as opposed to the red-top tabloids—so much so that a quality can be used as a noun (once again) to refer to such a publication.

A Google Ngram Viewer graph shows that the frequency of quality as an adjective (in American and British English combined) was minimal through 1920, rose gradually from 1920 to 1970, and exploded from 1970 through 2000:

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 11.40.55 AM

One can name a couple of factors, besides British newspaper terminology, that surely contributed to the recent escalation. Business jargon certainly took to the adjective, with its quality assurance, quality management, and quality circles. It’s big in sports, too. One cannot follow a season in basketball or football without hearing incessant talk of “quality wins” or “quality opponents.” A popular statistic in baseball since the 1980s has been the “quality start,” referring to an outing in which a pitcher stays in the game for at least six innings, and gives up no more than three runs.

But the big kahuna is “quality time,” about which the OED says, “orig. U.S.: time spent in a worthwhile or dedicated manner; esp. time in which one’s child, partner, etc., receives one’s undivided attention.” The first citation is in 1972, but because it so directly addressed busy people’s anxiety about not spending enough time with their kids or spouses, it quickly became a buzzword, and by the mid-1980s, Frank Rich of The New York Times was deriding it as a cliché. Ngram Viewer shows that it’s more popular than ever. But I would bet that many if not most of the uses are ironic or derisive, suggesting that, like the perpetual-motion machine, the notion that quality time can compensate for sparse quantity time is but a dream.

18 thoughts on ““Quality” (adj.)

  1. I never gave this a thought until now but I remember distinctly a junior hospital doctor in Manchester “telling” our boss that he was taking time off to spend some “quality time” with his parents before they became too old to notice he was visiting. 1982. I had never heard that expression before. I thought it was very cool. Also I wouldn’t have said “cool” in 1982.

    I wondered about the photo in your introduction. Was this photo taken in London UK?

  2. Yes, Arthur, on Queensway. We were on our way to Dartmouth (on your recommendation), where we had a great time, highlighted by fish and chips at Rockfish and a wonderful walk on the South Coast Path.

    1. I am a seasoned adult just starting a business class on total quality management. And the definition for a quality that the book postulates was on satisfying to me and let me to this post. And I too think that low quality and high quality are ways to describe things. Unfortunately, as has been demonstrated, quality has come free of it’s moorings and now has a adjective value. It comes from laziness. Well, there you are. My book states that, “quality is in the eye of the beholder.”

  3. Don’t forget Quality Meats and Quality Italian in Manhattan, the first of which opened in (I think) 2006. And a quick Google search reveals unrelated butcher shops named “Quality Meats” all over the country, from Visalia, California, to New Iberia, Louisiana, to Ormond Beach, Florida.

  4. Interesting post, as usual! However, you say, “Business jargon certainly took to the adjective, with its quality assurance, quality management….”
    In business, “quality assurance” refers to the assurance of quality, and “quality management” to the management of quality. In these cases, “quality” is still being used as a noun. Perhaps “quality assurance” and “quality management” are compound nouns–but “quality” here is not an adjective.

  5. There’s a hotel chain called Quality Inn – is this American or British? And is “Quality” used here as a noun or an adjective? I’m confused……..

    1. I believe as a noun, meaning “high quality,” and of the same category that Amanda rightly points out is used in “quality management,” etc.

      1. Nope. A firm’s “quality management” is the activity of managing the quality of the goods or services that the firm produces. “Quality assurance” is the business of assuring the quality of those goods and services (i.e. assuring that they are of the expected or required quality). But no similar explanation of “quality inn” is possible. “Quality Inn” is no different from “quality food”.

    1. …as well as the J. M. Barrie play by the same name, made twice into a movie by us Yanks, in 1927 & 1937.

  6. You skirt round but do not explicitly use the phrase ‘The Quality’, which in past centuries (probably from late 18th/early 19th? – would have to look it up somewhere) would have meant the upper classes including the aristocracy, the landed gentry and people of certain families – not necessarily titled, but of high status. They would also be referred to as ‘the Upper Ten Thousand’ and other such sobriquets. Tradesmen would style themselves as ‘suppliers to the Quality’. I think it’s from this use that ‘quality’ has come to mean ‘high quality’.

    Smollett’s use of ‘quality-friends’ does not mean friends of high quality or good friends: it means friends from the ‘quality’ stratum of society. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s an old-fashioned way of saying ‘classy’ or (US usage) ‘tony’.

    Personally I loathe the use of ‘quality’ without a qualifier, and try to avoid using it. I think that’s partly snootiness because I think it’s vulgar, and partly ‘chippiness’ because it smacks of class.

  7. ‘Quality’ was also used as a slang word when I was at secondary school in England during the 90s. It was just a general word of approval that could be applied to almost anything e.g. approval of a plan: “Let’s go and have an ice cream at the Castle”, reply “Quality”; approval of an object: “What do you think of my new shoes”, reply “Quality”; approval of a happening: “Mrs R. tripped over Eliot’s bag in History this morning”, reply “Quality” etc etc

  8. “Quality, Trade or Profession” is one of the headings in marriage registers in England; “quality” covers entries such as “Gentleman” or “Peer of the Realm” – not very common now.

  9. Sorry but your Shakespeare quotation is incorrect. It should be “The Grecian youths are full of quality, And swelling o’er with arts and exercise.” Then this will be a quality piece.

  10. Just to be clear, Ben, you are saying that in the US it has traditionally been considered improper to use “quality” as an adjective meaning “high quality”, but it is fine to use it as a noun meaning “high quality” (as in Quality Inn or quality time)? Seems inconsistent, although of course inconsistencies do happen.

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