[Original post contains a picture of a block of text, reading: ‘“Quite”: an adverbial modifier that shades the meaning of a statement. Americans use “quite” to amplify their enthusiasm for the adjective, in the way they would use “really”, “very” or “totally”. By contrast, if a Brit volunteers…
What about “rather?”
Hmm. ’Rather’ sounds pretty posh however you use it, except as a word of comparison (e.g. ‘Would you rather do X or Y?’). It hasn’t got much currency nowadays, at least as far as I’m aware.
I think it’s perhaps a bit like the second sense of ‘quite’: it isn’t as strong as ‘very’ but it’s more positive than no adverb at all. A lot of the time I think it has a hint of ‘surprisingly’ or ‘actually’, as if the ‘rather attractive’ person is someone you might not have expected to be particularly attractive. This links it back to the older comparative meaning of the word, since there’s an implied contrast with the expected state of affairs.
I don’t think it really has the sense of the first ‘quite’ (to indicate a lesser degree of enthusiasm than someone else has, or than might be expected). I can’t recall having heard or seen it used like that (except for deliberate understatement).
As with ‘quite’ there’s an older layer, which is strictly comparative and would usually be used to explicitly contrast two options (e.g. ‘The blood I drop is rather physical / Than dangerous to me’ (Coriolanus 1.5)).
I’m not entirely sure when you first start getting ‘rather’ used as a (mild) intensifier. I’ve found it in Frankenstein (1818) and Belinda (1811) but not in Gulliver’s travels (1726) or Marchmont (1796). There are one or two examples in The mysteries of Udolpho (1794). There are also a few in The school for scandal (1777) and She stoops to conquer (1773), which suggests it was in conversational use by that time (plays, and especially comedies, tending to use more colloquial language than other literary texts) although it may not have become acceptable in literary prose until the next generation.
Interestingly I haven’t found anything resembling a transitional usage. I’d expected that when it first started appearing as a word similar to ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’, there would be an implicit contrast with an alternative. That would make sense as a stepping-stone between the explicitly contrasting usage and the more modern usage. But the examples in Udolpho, She stoops to conquer, and The school for scandal don’t seem to have any implicit alternatives: they look very much like the modern form.
Like ‘quite’, ‘rather’ can also be used as an old-fashioned posh one-word exclamation, but in this case a much more straight-forward one expressing emphatic agreement. For some reason when used in this way it tends to have the emphasis on the second syllable, not the first: ‘ra-THER!’. A very Bertie Wooster thing to say.
How does all that compare with North American ‘rather’?