Word of The Day for Monday, November 29, 2010


quod•li•bet (KWOD-luh-bet)  n

1. a whimsical combination of familiar melodies or texts
2. a philosophical or theological point proposed for disputation; also : a disputation on such a point

1350–1400;  Middle English, from Medieval Latin quodlibetum, from Latin quodlibet, neuter of quilibet any whatever, from qui who, what + libet it pleases, from libe-re to please

Sentence Examples:
• As you may know, Marcy Weckler has made several fine contributions in the WLP choral catalogue. Here, she has created an interesting quodlibet making clever use of the treasured hymns "Were You There" and "Amazing Grace."
• The most rousing quodlibet was one whose three simultaneous lines began: "Blue moon. You saw me standing alone." "Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly." "Sh-boom, sh-boom. Ya-da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da."
• Yet all of this gives us at least a contextual basis for assuming that when Tinctoris quoted in his quodlibet a famous work that was then ascribed to Dunstable, along with 'L'Homme arme' as tenor, he may in effect have been using or have invented an illustration of he quodlibet principle that would reflect in microcosm the affinity between the earlier.

The Storyline
As she rummaged in her purse for some change, the music from her earphones, from a passing car and the sounds of the city formed an odd quodlibet in her ear.

Why This Word:

What a shift of meaning this humble if slightly exotic term has undergone. Though the first sense has fallen out of day-to-day use, it is usually given in dictionaries because philosophers at times have cause to refer to some medieval quodlibet.

These disputations, often on subtle points of logic or religious doctrine, were frequently exercises or improvised oral examinations for students, in the same spirit as moots (mock court cases) are for the legal fraternity. This may be why this Latin word was given to them, as it derives from quod, what, plus libet, it pleases, so roughly “what pleases you” or “as you like”. It seems to have had much the same idea behind it as the modern hand-waving whatever — argue away, the word seems to be saying, the result is of little consequence.

How it got from philosophy to music is intriguing, not least because it didn’t happen in English. In the late Middle Ages in Germany, quodlibet started to be applied to type of humour that featured daft lists of items loosely combined under an absurd theme — one example was objects forgotten by women fleeing from a harem. Something similar happened in France, where a quodlibet became a witty riddle — even today, avoir de quolibet means to produce clever repartee on demand.

The German idea of the humorous conglomeration was first applied to a musical composition by Wolfgang Schmeltzl in 1544 and the name later became the usual term in that language for facetious combinations of tunes haphazardly combined. Famous examples exist in works by Bach and Mozart in the eighteenth century. In this connection it certainly lives up to the idea behind the Latin word, since the aim is to produce a humorous amalgam of tunes to please the audience.

While the disputational sense is recorded in English from the twelfth century, the musical one only appears in 1845 and was clearly borrowed from German.

Sources: Merriam-Webster, World Wide Words

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