Quaint: ‘having an old-fashioned attractiveness or charm; oddly picturesque.’
Yep, that’s what I envisage quaint to mean in a nutshell.
But I’ve always been interested in the history of words (etymology), and when I was visiting other A to Z bloggers yesterday, two were blogging about etymology. So when I fed in ‘quaint’ to google today, this entry from the online etymology dictionary caught my eye.
c.1200, cointe, “cunning, ingenious; proud,” from Old French cointe “knowledgeable, well-informed; clever; arrogant, proud; elegant, gracious,” from Latin cognitus “known, approved,” past participle of cognoscere “get or come to know well” (see cognizance). Modern spelling is from early 14c.
Later in English, “elaborate, skillfully made” (c.1300); “strange and clever” (mid-14c.). Sense of “old-fashioned but charming” is first attested 1795, and could describe the word itself, which had become rare after c.1700 (though it soon recovered popularity in this secondary sense).
So what things do you call ‘quaint’ today? For me I suppose it would be village tea-rooms, thatched cottages, wild flower gardens with winding stone paths, wishing wells… that kind of thing.
If we were back in the 13th century, what would I use quaint for? A saddle, perhaps, or a sword. In the 14th? Perhaps The Forme of Cury, a cookbook:
The Forme of Cury is the first English text to mention olive oil, cloves, mace and gourds in relation to British food. Most of the recipes contain what were then luxurious and valuable spices: caraway, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and pepper. There are also recipes for cooking strange and exotic animals, such as whales, cranes, curlews, herons, seals and porpoises.
Apparently one of the recipes is a kind of porpoise haggis… nice. Now that’s put me right off my cream tea in the little cottage garden, attached to the crumbling but still beautiful thatched tea-room, with roses (naturally) climbing around the door…