[OED:] 8. a. refl. To behave or conduct oneself, esp. satisfactorily or in a specified way; to play one's part. Now rare and arch. Largely superseded by acquit.

Etymonline lacks enough details to aid me to infer the hidden metaphors, notions, and semantic drifts. How should the etymology be interpreted, to connect the etymon’s meaning with the acceptation quoted above?

My Confusion: The semantic field of 'quit' as discharge or relinquishment, seems to contradict the quality of charge or responsibility necessary for behaviour or conduct.

My Conjecture: The earlier meaning of 'quit' did concern repayment or discharge debts, which if completed promptly, does qualify as behaviour or conduct. Does this explain the semantic drift?

1 Answer 1


Your observation was: "The semantic field of 'quit' as discharge or relinquishment, seems to contradict the quality of charge or responsibility necessary for behaviour or conduct."

Essentially there is no contradiction here, and nor has the word 'quit' undergone much change since its original sense in Latin of 'calm' or 'settle'. The link with the word 'quiet' is apparent and at times 'quit' and 'quiet' have been used interchangeably.

In order to understand the connections and the how the word has been used for most of its existence it is necessary to step back a couple of hundred years. Language is not the issue here, but rather it is one of a sense of how the world 'operates' and the role of people in it.

In a world ruled by God (or the Gods in earlier times), maintaining order and balance in the proper relationships between man and God, man and State, and man and man was a central pre-occupation. A person's life was ruled by obligation. Everyone was to some degree beholden to someone or something, and life was a constant struggle or effort to sustain those relationships and obligations. The failure to meet one's obligations and the failure to maintain the relationships between God, State and Man led to disaster in the personal, civil and even natural spheres (in the sense that plagues, earthquakes etc were evidence of the wrath of God).

To keep a 'settled' (in the sense of 'quiet', 'calm' and 'ordered') relationship between these elements was the aim of existence and the best guarantee of safety, prosperity and salvation in the next life. To quit or quiet an obligation or relationship was attempt to restore it 'to order', to bring it back into balance, to quell the 'disquiet' that a disordered or unfulfilled obligation engendered. An account that was 'closed' (or quiet) was a good one.

So to 'quit an account' was to settle a debt - to restore order (and so quiet in that sense) and a finalisation (and so quiet in the sense of no further engagement) between the parties. To quit a job was to end the obligation of the employee to serve the employer and the obligation of the employer to pay or keep (in feudal times) the employee. So in fact both the employee and the employer 'quit' (or 'quietened') both the arrangement and relationship.

To die was to quieten the lifelong struggle to meet God's requirements, to finally settle the account. And here is a fine distinction. Whereas a trading transaction may be a discrete event where an obligation is created and then discharged (or quit or quietened), an obligation to an employer, or to God or to family, is continuous, continuing and complex. The larger obligation is made up of thousands of smaller obligations - to keep God's commandments, to serve the employer (or family) in every aspect. So while the final account with God is death, there is also an accounting that must be done every day, and in respect of every element of that obligation that arises every day.

So a God-fearing person, or a conscientious employee, might say "Did I quit (as in 'quieten' or 'settle') every element of my obligations (to God/to my employer/to my own sense of duty or worth) in a satisfactory manner today (or in this moment or in respect of this element of my obligation or role)? And the answer would be, "Yes, I quitted myself (of these elements of obligation) well". We might more commonly say these days, "I acquitted myself well", but essentially the meaning and intention is exactly the same.

Hence the OED reference 'To behave or conduct oneself, esp. satisfactorily or in a specified way; to play one's part.' can be understood to be the same as to 'discharge or relinquish(ment)'. In a fully accountable world, everyone and everything is accountable. All behaviour and duty is towards or in payment of an account (to God, State or Man), and to maintain payment towards and finally discharge or relinquish a debt or obligation was the duty and purpose of man. One might readily understand in a world no longer ruled (to such an extent) by a sense of obligation or duty how the expression 'quitted my duty' in the sense of having 'done it well' or 'to requirements', might have become 'archaic', and somewhat confusing to modern ears.

  • +1. Please allow me to postpone acceptation to encourage other answers, but I shall soon accept if none arises.
    – user50720
    Oct 26, 2015 at 1:33

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