A pleasing quickfire sprightliness to this word. It means, among other things, the essential or defining nature or characteristic of something, its particularities.  It can also mean a clever or nuanced argument or the capacity to deal in such niceties.

It is the title of a poem by George Herbert which defines the nature of verse, and though he says that it ‘cannot vault, or dance, or play’, that is exactly what the cadence does.

The last three words were the call of a winner in a game of cards, perhaps an early precursor of ‘winner takes all’.


My God, a verse is not a crown,

No point of honour, or gay suit.

No hawk, or banquet, or renown,

Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute:


It cannot vault, or dance, or play;

It never was in France or Spain;

Nor can it entertain the day

With my great stable or domain:


It is no office, art, or news,

Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall;

But it is that which while I use

I am with thee, and most take all.


Source: George Herbert (1593-1633), ‘The Quiddity’, quoted in John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 20


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