Quirky: Strange but Cool
I like the word “quirk,” the ricochet of the hard “k” sound at both ends. I like its onomatopoeic quality—it sounds like what it is, a quirk, a jerk, a fluke. It sounds agreeably startling, like the percussive timbre of gamelan music. Like the crows that erupt from the eucalyptus trees behind my house with a burst of squawks. I always considered quirkiness a good, charming, even noble attribute—with its implied free-spiritedness—until this quote by playwright Sarah Ruhl forced me to rethink the word and its implications:
The choice to have a perceptible aesthetic is often called a quirk. The word quirky suggests that in a homogenized culture, difference has to be immediately defined, sequestered, and formally quarantined while being gently patted on the head.
My husband and I are introverts. We live quietly and simply, which seems to be a problem—or at least an oddity—for some people. Neither of us has been called quirky (not exactly, not that word, not to our faces), but there have been inferences. I don’t recall the exact words used, but I understood the meaning of a friend’s seeming incomprehension of my choices—“don’t you want nicer furniture, a bigger house, a newer car?” she’d ask me. Don recently received an email from a friend that began: “I hope you’re enjoying your own little peculiar world.” Substitute quirky.
Substitute odd, offbeat, off-kilter, off-the-wall, peculiar, curious, erratic, eccentric if you’re rich and loony if you’re poor, unique, individual, idiosyncratic, strange, bizarre, outré, outlandish, zany, screwy, cranky, wacky, freaky, funky, kinky, kooky, trippy, way-out, far-out, nonconforming, nontraditional, unconventional, unorthodox, unusual (note the “offs,” “nons,” and “uns”). The Urban Dictionary qualifies it: “weird in a good way,” “strange but cool.”
“Quirky Is the New Black” – from the Huffington Post blog, May 24, 2014:
Quirkiness is like irony—hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Far more charming than weird, far less studied than cool, quirkiness is that indefinable quality that turns an idiosyncratic, slightly rigid neurotic into a lovable, idiosyncratic, slightly rigid neurotic.
“Quirky is a word used by the bourgeoisie to keep icky stuff at arm’s length,” Don said when I showed him Ruhl’s comment, adding: “Quirky folks don’t paint their walls Navajo White.” Our house is small. Very small. It’s painted inside and out in vivid hues of butterscotch, claret, lime, tangerine, turquoise—no Navajo White in sight—and adorned with murals, curious images, found objects. People don’t call it quirky; they say, “how cute!” I hear both admiration and amusement in their exclamations. It’s a barbed compliment, a pat on the head, a reminder that the speakers don’t live this way, wouldn’t want to. Babies and other young animals are cute, but beyond that it’s dicey, “cutesy.” The Brits have a word for it, “twee”—sentimental, sickly sweet. Substitute quirky.
Is being quirky positive or negative, praise or insult? If you call yourself quirky are you apologizing (sorry, I’m sorta quirky), or bragging (I’m brilliant, beautiful, and quirky)? Thoreau said, “If a man [sic] loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.” While marching to your inner drumbeat is admired in some circles, it may be looked upon with suspicion and disapproval in others. It can connote wistful envy—“I wish I could be more like that”—or discomfort, even threat, “I’m safe, don’t make me think outside the box.” The dichotomy exists side by side, the meaning perhaps in the minds of the beholders.
“Q” is a quirky letter. Located on the far left of your QWERTY keyboard—a quirky arrangement for the fingers—you strike it with the little finger of your left hand. In the cursive I was taught in the fifties (now facing extinction like western lowland gorillas and Borneo pygmy elephants), the lower-case “q” is like a “g” with the loop going right instead of left; the upper-case “Q” resembles a calligraphied number 2. “Q” is the seventeenth letter in the alphabet, which I salute with this seventeen-part essay.
Quirky “Q” words:
– Quark – an elementary particle in physics, its name adopted from Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!”
– Quaint – old-fashioned, maybe a little “twee”
– Quizzical – curious
– Quack, queasy, quibble, quip, quixotic, quiver and quaver
– Queer – in the old sense of meaning odd. It fell out of use because of possible offense and/or confusion, but the two words were reunited in an exhibition of “Queer British Art” at the Tate Britain. Among LGBT activists’ and artists’ comments displayed, one says that the work celebrates “the fun in playfully rejecting and embracing gender quirks.”
A Seattle friend has what she considers the crown jewel of dictionaries. Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged, 1934, encompasses more than 600,000 entries. During a recent visit I hefted the weighty tome off the shelf and found the following on page 2045 of its 3350 pages:
quirk – origin uncertain:
- A sudden turn, twist or curve, a deviation from regular course.
Definitions 2 through 12 refer to quibbles and quips, applications in architecture, carpentry, glassmaking, glovemaking (a diamond-shaped piece at the base of a glove finger), and lastly:
13) a small metal tool used in moldings and ornamental work in plaster.
After quirk, the Webster lists quirksey, a variation of quirky, also defined as tricksy.
And then quirky: tricky, full of quirks; e.g., a quirky lawyer (Webster’s example, not mine).
Another friend was told that she thinks sideways. This usage of the word fascinates me, another “quirky” substitute with more synonyms for my list: askant, aslant, asquint, athwart, crabwise, circuitous, contrariwise, oblique. She doesn’t think it was meant as a slight, rather a neutral observation about the “different” way her mind works, but she didn’t seem pleased. That’s the ambiguity of these sideways remarks, a kind of “damning with faint praise.”
Yet another friend tells about his wife’s experience at a painting retreat. As he relates it from his wife’s account, her host acted “kinda quirky.” This alleged quirkster was moody, demanding, disagreeable, distracted, unpredictable, volatile, high maintenance, a handful. I would call this person cantankerous, querulous, a bitch, but not quirky. Unlike with pregnancy and uniqueness, it’s possible, even customary, to be “a little,” “sorta” or “kinda” quirky. But never very or extremely quirky. Full-on quirkiness may be an oxymoron, no longer quirky at all, but dysfunctional, a pathological condition bordering if not fully embracing mental illness or criminality.
Quirky traits include wearing mismatched socks or earrings, displaying a style or look that may be viewed as funky in youth, unconventional with age. One Saturday morning in Seattle I walked to the farmers’ market in the University District. Along the way I noticed a thin seventy-something-I’m-guessing woman with shoulder-length, curly, sparse white hair. She wore a white sleeveless semi-sheer blouse, a short bandanna-print skirt, blocky black mini-boots and white mid-calf socks. I’d read Sarah Ruhl just the day before, and it occurred to me that many people would call this woman quirky, some in pat-on-the-head or genuine admiration (“the new black”), others as censure. If you don’t have it in you to be original you can go online and find a line of “quirky dresses” at ModCloth. Quirky conformity—talk about oxymorons.
Quirk appears as a noun or verb in mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth-century literature in its early connotation of an abrupt turn or twist, an idiosyncrasy, rather than as judgment:
– Henry David Thoreau in Walden, 1854, referring to hard-to-catch pickerel: “with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven.”
– Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, 1868: “‘Hurry and get done! Don’t stop to quirk your little finger and simper over your plate, Amy,’ cried Jo.”
– Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt,1922: “And then old Major Silas Satan, a brainy cuss who’s always waitin’, he gives his tail a lively quirk, and gets in quick with his dirty work.”
Twentieth-century literature also yields baby names deemed quirky. If your imagination leaves you high and dry, originality is co-opted again on a website that offers suggestions, both title characters and lesser players, including Melanctha (Gertrude Stein), Praxis (Fay Weldon), and Zoyd ( in Vineland by Thomas Pynchon).
As a Virginia Woolf enthusiast, I was curious to know if and how she’d used the word. An online word search of her novels and major works yielded nothing. Her diary, letters and more than 700 essays—more likely sources—were inaccessible to me, but not to Stuart, a Woolfian resource extraordinaire with remarkable recall and a customized database that always come through. He found a lone reference in a 1929 essay, “Phases of Fiction.” Writing about Laurence Sterne, Woolf said: “there is something of the essayist, something of the soliloquist in the quips and quirks of this brilliant mind.”
Publishers and literary agents encourage quirkiness. Their message is, “send us something offbeat, unusual, different.” One asks for “smart, quirky, ambitious books;” another celebrates “the quirky, eclectic ideas in our exciting literary community.” Others seek quirky character-driven stories, quirky humor, original and quirky non-fiction ideas. Readers and writers claim quirkiness with pride. Consider “Compulsively Quirky,” the blog of “a proud book nerd,” and “Quirky Bookworm,” the literary adventures of a “sorta blonde mom.”
The fifties have undergone a protracted revival. The music, the clothes, the cars, and the food (think meat loaf and tuna-noodle casserole) became cool and quirky in the seventies and beyond with the advent of “Happy Days.” But the decade itself was as straight-laced as one could imagine; most people didn’t champion the offbeat. The post-war period—the late forties through the 1950s—was when quirks seemed to lose their neutrality, and quirkiness became dubious, even dangerous. Middle America—the gray-flannel-suited, home-from-the-war, mom’s-in-the-kitchen-and-god’s-in-his-heaven cadre—revealed a brittle conventionality. The country’s stability was precarious and demanded that the boat not be rocked. The Beats and others who fell outside the parameters rebelled against the confines of conformity and pursued all things quirky; they were deemed suspect, their quirkiness castigated by the status quo. Since the upheavals of the sixties, rebels past and present are romanticized. The outré is in, but the element of menace persists.
I’ve considered “quirky” from both sides now and am ready to take my stand—on the fence. The word has been misused and overused, redefined, turned on its head. I appreciate Sarah Ruhl’s observations; I’m keenly attuned to the way language can be used to subtly neutralize and belittle people. But I think “quirk,” or “quirky,” is still an apt descriptor of people, actions and things that are weird in a good way. Or just plain weird—sometimes a cause for celebration in itself, and fie on those who don’t like it.
About the writer:
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in more than sixty literary journals, most recently Baltimore Review, Stonecoast Review, The Chaos, Citron Review, Room, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Fish Food. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California.