Sounds like quark, the particle no one can see, or quick, which also defines a particle no one can see. Sounds like a punctuation mark, an accent. Sounds like a cipher. Sounds like a computer problem — “users, we’re experiencing a quirk at the moment, but service will be back shortly.” Strange because it has a Q. Queer, yes, it’s a queer word. After all, quirk’s an excuse for something you don’t know what to do with, like a kid who hasn’t come out of the closet even though everyone knows. A side effect of interesting, only less interesting. Homework is interesting. So are revolutions in the Middle East. You’re quirky.
In elementary school, an alcove formed by two giant spruce trees was our Hogwarts. With Popsicle sticks and rubber bands fashioned into triangles, we made weapons called badachyus, and we’d fling them across the playground to defeat the werewolves — that is, if the fairies weren’t allied with them for the moment. The other kids, the ones who played football on the blacktop, called us weird. In our Zapdos T-shirts, we would beam. Weird was a wonderful word, elongated and wise. We elongated the vowels: weeeiiiird. Were we? We had no idea, but hey, we didn’t want to be normal, whatever that was. Such a clipped, compressed word. No room in it. Nothing to expand upon.
Weird had a moonstone dropped on its head and evolved into quirky. It took about ten years, at least that’s how long it took from elementary-school weird to my first description as said word. Perhaps it was also conveyed through politeness, imagining politeness as a gigantic homogeneous factory with conveyor belts and machinated razor blades to chop off any bits that stick out. We are now a word with stranger letters, yes, but it fits more neatly into resumés and the three-word test (describe yourself in three words or less — you better not lie) along with zany and unique. As a quirk, you are not quite sure whether you’re a line of newfangled clothing shops or the 123rd element on the periodic table.
Quirk is an equivocation. It’s hard to rail against a euphemism — especially one that drips with such mystery. After all, euphemisms make everything better, don’t they? Or else they don’t work. You are a pane of glass, transparent to display the quirk to full effect. Space set aside for a courtyard so the quirk can roam about unrestricted, occasionally peering into windows with a delighted smile. A one-liner on Craig Ferguson’s show — Jay’s way too commercial for this market. A bird’s neck. A sudden twist, turn or stroke, as a flourish in writing.
It’s not just what you think it is. Slippery, quicksilver — quirksilver. The opposite of defined is encompassed by too much. Quirk has eight definitions in the dictionary. No one really knows what he or she means when they drop the quirk bomb. Have you ever heard of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? Do you know what Mary Poppins says about that? It’s something to say when you don’t know what to say. But you don’t know what it means. No one knows what it means until you look at each little word root and discover that all along, when you didn’t know what to say, you were “atoning for educability through delicate beauty.” If you were a quirk, you’d do the same. You could be anything you want. Isn’t that exciting? If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious.
Quarks come in flavours. Humanity is a rainbow. I like lime. Quarks are subatomic particles, the parts of sum. They are found in atoms, which are found in matter, which is found in constellations. Every quark is part of a highly functioning swarm. We don’t know exactly what they do, but that’s okay, right? Everything revolves, and you can never find speed and position at the same time. It’s all quantum.
You meet someone who stares at you with an intentness borne of lack of understanding. She stares at her math homework the same way. You speak, perhaps for five minutes. Perhaps for weeks. You can see forming in her pupils a sort of squiggle, the interrogative mark of cartoons. You were supposed to interview her in class, some sort of get-to-know-you project. She’s wearing a blue sweater with black pants, ugg boots. You are wearing a leather vest and skirt emblazoned with orange and red hibiscus. In January. She told you she liked Ryan Cabrera. You told her you liked Arcade Fire. Also Patti Smith and the Wombats. Now it’s time to read back your reports, your mini-interview. She takes a deep breath through cotton-candy-painted lips, and sighs, “Liz is . . . quirky.”
What’s to be done about the quirk epidemic? Antibiotics? Round up all the quirks and gas them? Outlaw the word, or create a new term even more definitive? Anything but to be trapped in that endless collider, shot around and expected to splinter, then coalesce into some broad category. But that’s not really happening. They’re not really looking for the top quirk, you know, even though Top Quirk would make a really good reality show. It’s just a conspiracy, and maybe you’d prefer to remain suspended in shards in a sort of centrifuge. After all, that way they can tell what you’re made of, be forced to examine subatomic particles for brief seconds. No one is created equal.
Here’s a list of characteristics that might possibly lead to a positive identification of quirkiness:
- Wearing Pac-Man T-shirts
- Talking out of the side of one’s mouth
- Reading when you could be dancing
- Dancing when you could be walking
- Owning more than five fedoras
- Writing poetry
- Reading poetry
- Understanding poetry
- Appreciating poetry
- Tape-recording conversations as you have them
- Everything is a song, including history essays
- Monday means green underwear
- Honey and ketchup; baloney and whipped cream; pineapple pizza
- Private dialogue with deceased Beatles
- Purposely mismatched socks
- You still like Pokémon
- Mr. Humphries on Are You Being Served?
- Knitting Technicolor moustaches
- Humming “Here Comes My Baby” while skipping down snowy Chicago sidewalks
- Shredded cheese = “sprinkle cheese”
- Liberal Ayn Rand fans
- None of your food can be touching on your plate
- Discussing your homework with yourself
- Wizard of Oz obsession
- Smiling at strangers
- Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence and you know it
- Playing the bulbul tarang, an obscure Indian instrument whose name means “waves of nightingales”
If you have seven or more of these symptoms, please contact the Department of Health and Human Services for an application to be covered under the policy of the word quirky. This entitles you to nothing, but they would like to keep track of you anyway. You know, just in case they get a report next Monday of someone in green underwear, a fedora, and a Technicolor moustache skipping down the sidewalk muttering to themselves about The Fountainhead in epic verse. You know, like you.