18

A picture snippet of text that reads (spelled as given): In the Quyer. Two paer of organs, and 6 lether stoles with iron to fit upon in the quyer, 4 great laten candlesticks before the base altar, and 1 other of iron. Two altar frontes, one of blew bawdkyn, the other of grene bawdkyn.

The snippet above is taken from The Gentleman's Magazine (London, England), Volume 53, dated, 1783. It's only when you say Quyer out loud, do you realize what the word is. It is one of the quirkiest spelled words in the English language today, choir, pronounced /ˈkwʌɪə/. Initially, quyer looks idiosyncratic and alien-looking, until you realize that the spelling is phonetic and what's more, it makes perfect sense. In addition, quyer looks English whereas the Modern English spelling of choir appears to be derived from the French choeur.

There are other instances of quyer in Google Books, published in 1715, 1726, 1772, and 1807

When did the present day spelling choir definitely replace that of quyer? Why wasn't the original (?), more English-looking, and more phonological qu kept?

EDIT Many thanks to @Kris who kindly pointed out my error in the comments below.

When did the present day spelling choir supersede that of quyer ?" It did? No. nGram cited by Josh demonstrates that choir always was dominant, while quyer lived a secondary existence until c.1825, when it pretty much disappeared

  • Ngram suggests the coexistence of the two terms with choir the more common of the two. books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Sep 19 '14 at 8:55
  • "When did the present day spelling choir supersede that of quyer ?" It did? No. nGram cited by Josh demonstrates that choir always was dominant, while quyer lived a secondary existence until c.1825, when it pretty much disappeared. – Kris Sep 19 '14 at 9:33
  • 2
    Don't forget that books and even writing were limited to a small proportion of the population and due to invasions, etc. writing in particular over speech had more influence by the French. – JamesRyan Sep 19 '14 at 11:26
  • 1
    note that you might be better to put a link word in brackets followed by the link in parentheses. ngram – SrJoven Sep 19 '14 at 11:35
  • 2
    With respect to date, note that all of your sources except the last are transcripts of MSS dating to the reign of Henry VIII - first half of the 16th century, more than a century before spelling was regularized toward the end of the 17th century. – StoneyB Sep 19 '14 at 13:23
26

Quyer and choir possibly have different meanings.

From the context you gave, it looks like quyer is the equivalent of the modern-day word quire. A quire is not a group of singers, but rather it's the part of a church where those singers sit.

Choir is clearly a strongly related word, describing the group of singers. To muddy the water a bit, the spelling choir is also a commonly used alternative spelling for quire.

So it looks to me like rather than the spelling quyer dying out and being replaced by choir, the history of the words is more like this:

  • Before English spelling was codified, there were a variety of spellings for this word, and it could be used to refer both to the singers, and the place where they sit.
  • Once spelling started to standardize, people used quyer (and variations on it) for the place, and choir (and variations on it) for the singers.
  • Quyer looks kind of weird, and eventually evolved into quire, which looks like a more normal English spelling.
  • Nowadays, very few people who are not experts at church architecture will frequently encounter the word quire, so end up using choir instead, which would account for the declining usage of quire.

(I personally am only familiar with the term quire from having to sit in one at a wedding I recently attended.)

  • 1
    Indeed, the insert context image/text certainly backs this up, as it indicates equipment existing within the place. – SrJoven Sep 19 '14 at 11:40
  • The carol The Holly and the Ivy had the refrain "The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the quire" though apparently "choir" started to be the spelling of the final word from the late 19th century. – Henry Sep 19 '14 at 23:34
  • Also note that the modern definitions of quire relate generally to pieces of paper or parchment: 1) four sheets of paper or parchment folded to form eight leaves, as in medieval manuscripts. 2) any collection of leaves one within another in a manuscript or book. 3) 25 (formerly 24) sheets of paper; one twentieth of a ream. In my experience the third definition is the one I've seen most commonly. – Bob Jarvis Sep 20 '14 at 1:51
5

etymonline says this:

c.1300, queor "part of the church where the choir sings," from Old French cuer, quer "choir of a church (architectural); chorus of singers" (13c., Modern French choeur), from Latin chorus "choir" (see chorus). Meaning "band of singers" is c.1400, quyre. Re-spelled mid-17c. on Latin model.

Contrary to my initial instinct, the qu seems to actually have been an Old French spelling change (I would usually assume qu to be more Latin than French).

The 17th century respelling seems to have been aimed at reflecting the actual origin of the word from Latin (this etymological spelling was at the basis of many respelling efforts) but it did end up making the word look more like modern French instead. A case of historic irony?

I guess the old spelling of quyer survived for a while out of habit, or possibly because people did not actually associate choir with the same, but differently spelled choir (which may well have looked like a newly-borrowed French word).

  • The Prayer book has "In quires and places where they sing". – Tim Lymington supports Monica Sep 19 '14 at 9:08
  • @TimLymington: According to wiki, that was published in 1662, indeed around mid 17c. that etymonline mentions. As such the spelling i for the vowel y is not uncommon, but it is interesting to see that (i for y) reflected in the “new” spelling as well. – oerkelens Sep 19 '14 at 9:12
  • But, "When did the present day spelling choir supersede that of quyer ?" – Kris Sep 19 '14 at 9:34
  • @Kris: That is a very good, and admittedly still unanswered question if it means "when did the use of one supersede the use of the other_". Google ngrams does not have enough occurrences of either word to really be able to tell, apart from the fact that it becomes less trustworthy in general the further we go back from say, 1800. Etymonline clearly states the spelling (maybe not the usage) was reformed in the 17th century so that is when the choir spelling superseded the quyer spelling (albeit in a prescriptivist sense - but that was OK back then). – oerkelens Sep 19 '14 at 9:40
  • Please see the nGram I cited at OP. HTH. – Kris Sep 19 '14 at 9:44

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