Submitted by Dyske on September 13, 2006

Quarters

Why is the word “quarters”, to mean a place of residence, plural? When we say, “I’ll show you to your quarters,” we mean a room. So, why don’t we simply say, “I’ll show you to your quarter,” without the ‘s’?

There are some nouns that take a plural form but they are not actually plural, like “means”, when we say, “a means to an end”. However, I do not think this is the case with “quarters”. Otherwise, we would say, “a quarters”. (I did find a few instances of this on the web.)

How did the word, which means one fourth of something, come to be used as a place of residence in the first place? My wife suggested that it came perhaps from quarters (corner sections or rooms) of a castle, but if this were the case, each room would be a quarter, and there would be no need for the plural ‘s’.

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All I could find was that quarter was used to describe a portion or area of town and that quarters was used to describe military housing. "Quarter" was used as a verb to describe the act up putting up military.

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Regarding the plural issue, would "rations" be a similar occurrence? "here are your rations. Eat up."

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It's from the usage of the French word that the English usage derives.

The French root is 'quartier' which can indeed refer to a fraction or an area of a town. But it is also used to refer to a camp, encampment, gite or lodgings. I've found references to that usage from as early as the 15th century so it's certainly a very old usage.

Looking further back though as to where that French usage comes from, there cold well be a clue in that the Spanish word 'cuarto' also functions as both quarter (fraction) and quarters (habitation)... when both French and Spanish seem to have common usage, the root is usually Latin.

I can't find anything specific in Latin that looks like a root though. There are two possible things one might look at:

Roman camps were built to quite specific specifications both when tent camps and permanent camps were built. The camps were usually split into quarters by 'streets' with soldiers living in tents/barracks in each quarter and the higher officers in the centre of the camp. There isn't a word in Latin resembling quarter that is used in this regard but it's possible that such a template was used later and then referred to as allocating soldiers to their quarters.

The other possibility is to do with seasons i.e. quarters of the year. Roman soldiers had separate terms for winter and summer camps... so one might guess that it was to do with that.

I'd tend towards the first explanation myself. Quarters of military encampment with soldiers being allocated to quarters, but it's largely guesswork really without any real etymological basis.

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Quarters is reference of a military basis where there are many individuals within a structure. The Roman, French... are of the partitioning of areas and getting to a "quarter" origin, but since a single room has multiple residents (troops barracks typically) - it is carried forward that the same single room is a "quarters" even when we now have one occupant.

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AndyA above mentions the French and the Spanish words; well, the word in Portuguese is practically the same - 'quarto', and it is also used meaning a bedroom and a quarter (1/4) as well.

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To say nothing of headquarters.

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