Charmingly antiquated or odd
Peculiar in a way that is interesting or appealing
In a world of constant innovation, it can be tempting to think that newer is always better. After all, if the old versions worked fine, we wouldn’t need the newer ones, right? Despite the dizzying pace of progress, though, there are still stately old landmarks and antique treasures that have withstood the test of time. If we take the time to appreciate these relics of a bygone age we might appreciate them for their quaint charms, or at least as testaments to how far we’ve come.
Quaint describes something as appealing on account of its oddness or antiquity. For instance, an old-fashioned penny-farthing bicycle (famous for their gigantic front wheels) might seem quaint to someone who is amused by how much styles of transportation have changed since the Victorian era. This sense of quaint specifically characterizes outdated things that feel charmingly strange from a modern perspective. However, the word can also be used more generally to describe things that are appealingly or strikingly peculiar for any reason. For instance, you might buy a quaint medallion from a craft show because you think the grotesque mythical creature engraved on it is weirdly cool. Regardless of how old it is, something quaint is attention-grabbing because it is starkly out of place in an ordinary setting.
All quaint things seem strange, but strange things are only quaint if they are in some way alluring or interesting as a result of their peculiarity. A historic recreation of a scary medieval dungeon would likely seem strange in comparison to modern jails, but it is probably too creepy and unsettling to be quaint. Quaint can also be employed in a pejorative manner to suggest that a thing’s dated look makes it tacky or otherwise unattractive. If you and your friend walked into a French restaurant trying to capture a late 19th century milieu with dingy floral wallpaper, reproduction Parisian art prints, and creaky wooden furniture, your friend might sheepishly comment, “this is… quaint,” before dragging you out the door to try another place instead. In that case, your friend would be implying that although the restaurant is trying to emulate an 1890s French style, it only achieves a gaudy imitation rather than a convincing reproduction. Insincere uses of quaint can be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, or even downright nasty.
Quaint didn’t always mean “attractively odd,” though. A few hundred years ago, you could have used quaint to describe something as ingenious or elegant. Using this meaning, a quaint object might have been attractive because of its brilliant design. Quaint could also be used around that time to characterize people as highly skilled in some way. These days, both of those usages are considered obsolete. To most modern English speakers, they are as quaint as a bicycle with a gigantic front wheel.
Example: The imitation Victorian light fixtures gave the dining room a quaint, inviting warmth.
Example: What his friends saw as a quaint thrift store find, he saw as an homage to the great Bohemian artists.
Example: Last winter we stayed at a quaint little cottage by the lake.
Quaint first appeared in English in the 13th century as cointe, meaning “crafty” or “clever.” Cointe was borrowed directly from the Anglo-Norman and Old French; in both languages, the word meant “learned” or “crafty.” Cointe derives from the Latin word cognitus, which means “known” or “understood” and is the past participle of the verb cognoscere, meaning “to learn about” or “to know thoroughly.” Cognoscere is composed of the prefix com-, meaning “with,” and the verb gnoscere, meaning “to know.” Gnoscere in turn stems the Proto-Indo-European root gno-, which means simply “to know.” Now you gno-!
Though initially its English use signified craftiness or cunning, quaint acquired its modern sense of “charmingly antiquated” upon reemerging in the late 18th century after falling out of use about a century earlier. Its present use may come from the notion of the appeal and uncommonness of cleverly crafted things, or from the self-referential idea of the word being antiquated and rare.
Quaintly: The adverb form of quaint illustrates when something is done in an amusingly anachronistic or odd way. Quaintly can also characterize an adjective or other adverb as related to something that is appealingly old-fashioned or peculiar.
Example: Upon her introduction to the party’s host, she curtsied quaintly and assumed an exaggerated affectation, making the onlookers giggle.
Example: The period actors were all quaintly polite to the tourists.
Quaintness: Quaintness is a noun referring to the quality of outdated charm.
Example: The leather armchair’s quaintness was outshone only by the leather-bound books on the bookcases lining all the walls.
From Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more."
Before the poem’s narrator is interrupted by the ominous knocking on his door, he is up late in his study reading through pleasingly antiquated, or quaint, books of ancient legends. The use of the word quaint here implies that, though he is drifting off to sleep, the charming oddity of the volumes he is poring over is engaging enough to keep him awake to hear the mysterious knock.
Quaint = Antiquated + Cute
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of quaint. Did you use quaint in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.