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Lawyers working under the proposed new Legal Aid system will have to meet "quality standards", according to last week's White Paper. The Lord Chancellor was quite clear on this: a Criminal Defence Service would provide quality benchmarks, he told journalists, a new community legal service would be set up to provide quality advice, and there'd be a choice of lawyers who would be, as his Lordship put it, "quality-guaranteed".

In some of these examples, quality could be thought of either as an adjective (meaning "good" or "high") or as a noun, which at one time it always was. Indeed, in its original incarnation, it could hardly be anything else.

You could no more talk of a quality benchmark that you could of a "sort benchmark". You could say something was of poor quality or good quality, but not that it showed quality (What quality?)

The Latin word it came from was not even a noun, but a pronoun, qualis, meaning "of what kind?" or "of such a kind". It was like quiddity, a word not much heard these days, which meant "thingness" from the Latin quid ("what?")

If Lord Irvine had been an Elizabethan Lord Chancellor, and had called for quality lawyers, it would probably have been understood that he expected them to be of good social standing, preferably titled. Not that he would have put it so ungrammatically. He would have said "lawyers of quality".

By that time (about 300 years after it was first used in English), it had become possible to use the word with a tacit "good" in front of it. But what snobs they were!

The OED has a delightful quote from a Lady Bertie, plainly an arch-snob, who in 1671 declared in some connection or other that "there are no men of quality but the Duke of Monmouth; all the rest are gentlemen". A "quality horse" would have been a thoroughbred.

The dictionary's first example of quality as an adjective comes from 1784 with the phrase "quality living", which in those days meant living like a lord, or at least like a top person, who was probably a lord anyway.

In 1957, the Times started advertising itself on railway stations and other public places as the Top People's Paper, a campaign plainly directed at people who weren't, but might be persuaded that by giving up the Telegraph and taking the Times instead, they might magically become so.

This was at a time when the expression "quality press" had only lately become common, and no doubt the old connection between quality on the one hand and a good pedigree on the other was stirring somewhere at the backs of the minds of the Times's advertising department.

We are all democrats now, and quality has other things to do. The old shop-fronts that had "Quality Butcher" in curly letters on them referred, I guess, as much to the clientele as to the meat; today, "quality control" merely ensures that the product always tastes the same.