On holiday in London last week, I was gobsmacked to come upon this:
The reason for my surprise was that, on my mother’s knee, I was taught that quality should not be used as an adjective but exclusively as a noun referring to a feature or characteristic of a person or thing. I haven’t been on my mother’s knee for a long time, but the injunction is still widespread. Bryan Garner’s entry on the word in Garner’s Modern American Usage reads, in its entirety: “When used as an adjective meaning ‘of high quality,’ this is a vogue word and a casualism <a quality bottling company>. Use good or fine or some other adjective of better standing.” For decades, one of the easiest and most efficient ways for novelists to convey that a character is a philistine has been to have him say something like, “I’m talking quality products here!”
But now I was seeing evidence that in England, quality is an adjective of perfectly good standing. It was meaningful that the sign was at a pub, for everything about this institution is supposed to signify history and tradition. In other words, the implication was that the usage had been OK for a long time.
And when I got home and checked my Oxford English Dictionary, I found that that is the case. The process started as early as Shakespeare, with the noun being used to mean high quality (“The Grecian youths are full of quality, And swelling ore with arts and exercise”) or, similarly, high birth or rank (“There are no men of quality but the Duke of Monmouth; all the rest are gentlemen,” 1671).
The adjective emerged roughly in 1700, meaning, in the OED‘s words: “With sense ‘of high social standing, of good breeding, noble’, as quality acquaintance, quality air, quality blood, quality end, quality friend, quality gentleman, quality horse, quality lady, quality living, quality pride, quality white, etc.” There are many citations in the 18th century (“The influence of Peregrine’s new quality-friends”—Smollett, Peregrine Pickle), but starting in the early 19th, according to the dictionary, this usage became “archaic.” The archaicness seems to have commenced being reversed in the United States; the OED cites a 1910 headline in an Ohio newspaper, “American is the quality magazine.” In Britain it became common in the 1960s to refer to The Times, The Guardian, and such as “quality newspapers,” as opposed to the red-top tabloids—so much so that a quality can be used as a noun (once again) to refer to such a publication.
A Google Ngram Viewer graph shows that the frequency of quality as an adjective (in American and British English combined) was minimal through 1920, rose gradually from 1920 to 1970, and exploded from 1970 through 2000:
One can name a couple of factors, besides British newspaper terminology, that surely contributed to the recent escalation. Business jargon certainly took to the adjective, with its quality assurance, quality management, and quality circles. It’s big in sports, too. One cannot follow a season in basketball or football without hearing incessant talk of “quality wins” or “quality opponents.” A popular statistic in baseball since the 1980s has been the “quality start,” referring to an outing in which a pitcher stays in the game for at least six innings, and gives up no more than three runs.
But the big kahuna is “quality time,” about which the OED says, “orig. U.S.: time spent in a worthwhile or dedicated manner; esp. time in which one’s child, partner, etc., receives one’s undivided attention.” The first citation is in 1972, but because it so directly addressed busy people’s anxiety about not spending enough time with their kids or spouses, it quickly became a buzzword, and by the mid-1980s, Frank Rich of The New York Times was deriding it as a cliché. Ngram Viewer shows that it’s more popular than ever. But I would bet that many if not most of the uses are ironic or derisive, suggesting that, like the perpetual-motion machine, the notion that quality time can compensate for sparse quantity time is but a dream.