I was explaining to my son that HQ stood for "headquarters," when he surprised me by dividing the word into "head" and "quarters." I had never considered this word thusly before, but it's obvious to me now: the quarters for the head. But then as I explained that "quarters" was another word for a building or room, I realized how little it fits.
We discussed it over our lunch circle, and came up with some theories:
- It originally cost a quarter to rent a room.
- Military bases were divided into four parts, each of which contained some buildings for particular functions.
- Rented space was paid by the quarter (in the annual sense).
Doing some research, this is what we found:
An explanation of give no quarter says that quarter developed from a fourth part of something, progressing from sky and space, to compass directions, to cities and towns, and that "there was a parallel development on a domestic scale and a part of a house also became called a quarter" but it sheds no light on how that came to be. So it remains plausible that "quarters" might be related to dividing a house into four parts, similar to #2.
This discussion of quarter supports the idea that "quarters" comes from dividing a house into four parts, but also mentions "quarter days" which are days of the year "on which it is usually contracted that rents should be paid and houses or lands entered upon or quitted." This lends some plausibility to #3.
But then there is this blog article that states unequivocally and unsourced-ly that the origin is none of the above, but in fact derives from a French word which means "separate from."
How did "quarters" come to mean housing or accommodation?