(From A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe)

Gloria glances at the top table then back at William and slips him a wink. 'Get ready for the fuss, she whispers, leaning so close he feels her breath on his ear and smells her perfume. They joked earlier about quite what that would mean. Gloria thought they might sing 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow', and William, desperate to appear nonchalant and funny, said he hoped they*d stand him on a very high pedestal and bow down.

I don't quite understand the word "quite" there. I take it to mean something like a padding in the sense of "probably" or "possibly".

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    No - it's not about "possibility". In your context, quite means exactly (by extension from quite = completely, which you'll find in all dictionaries). Apr 2 at 11:04
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    The downvote certainly wasn't me! Before posting my comment above, I actually spent a couple of minutes searching without success for any matching dictionary definition - first in several free online resources, then the subscription-only full OED. I specifically didn't post an answer myself because I assumed someone would find the definition for this exact usage, but apparently that (still?) hasn't happened. Obviously the cited example derives from quite = completely - but it's not all that obvious how the meaning shift occurs, so it's a perfectly valid question to raise here. Apr 2 at 17:17
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    What does that refer to? They joked earlier about quite what that would mean.
    – TimR
    Apr 2 at 18:29
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    Normally quite is used in statements like: "I don't know quite what you mean" and the sense is "I'm somewhat in the dark about your meaning. I have a vague idea but I'm not really sure what you're getting at." So it's odd to see it used in the way it is there, "They joked about quite what that would mean." It seems elliptical to me, as if they were joking that they wouldn't know quite what to make of "that", whatever "that" is -- getting physically close to each other?
    – TimR
    Apr 2 at 18:36
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    @philphil quite could appear in either location, modifying "know" or modifying "what you mean". google.com/… But this sentence still strikes my ear as very strange: "They joked earlier about quite what that would mean." It's elliptical to the point of being unidiomatic, IMO. quite requires a context that admits degree or extent, a gradient of some kind, say from imprecision to precision, inexactitude to exactitude. You could say "They joked how they hadn't known quite what it meant"
    – TimR
    Apr 4 at 13:50

1 Answer 1


It could be paraphrased as "exactly" or "precisely". It does seem to be "padding", in the sense that you could remove the word and there wouldn't be much difference in meaning.

Earlier they had joked about the exact meaning, consequences, and implications of him being so close that he could feel her breath and smell her perfume. I suspect that this was referenced earlier in the novel. Probably something like "If you get that close we'll end up sleeping together".

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