[This is a fast-access FAQ excerpt.]
The attributive use of "quality", as in "quality workmanship", is
sometimes questioned. The alternative that nobody will object to is
"high-quality" (for which OED's first citation is from 1910).
OED's first citation of "quality" in the sense "high quality,
excellence" is from Shakespeare (1606): "The Grecian youths are
full of qualitie, Their loving well composed, with guift of nature."
(Troilus and Cressida, IV iv). It seems to have been in steady use
since then. The proverb "Quality is better than quantity" is first
recorded in 1604 in the form "The gravest wits [...] The qualitie,
not quantitie, respect."
The attributive use of "quality" is another matter. OED has a
citation of "quality air" from 1701; but there is only scattered
evidence between then and the following note in A Manual for
Writers, by John Matthews Manly and John Arthur Powell (University
of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1915): "~Quality~ is grossly misused as
an adjective; fortunately the misuse is confined almost entirely to
advertisements, where all sorts of violence are done to the
language: 'Quality clothes! Built (!) from the most exclusive (!)
designs.'" The next dictionary evidence after the OED's citation is
the listing in Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed.
(1934), which labels it "colloquial, chiefly U.S.". Chamber's
Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1959 edition, calls it "vulgar".
Modern dictionaries do not give it a usage label. It is attacked by
Morton S. Freeman (A Handbook of Problem Words and Phrases, ISI,
1987) and by James Kilpatrick (Fine Print: Reflections on the
Writing Art, Andrews and McMeel, 1993), and prohibited by The
Globe and Mail Style Book (Penguin, 1995). It is defended by
Theodore Bernstein (Dos, Don'ts, and Maybes of English Usage,
Barnes & Noble, 1977). Bloomsbury Good Word Guide (Bloomsbury,
1988) and Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (Harper & Row,
1975 & 1985) note that some people object to it.
The term "quality time", meaning "time spent in social
interaction with another person, especially one's young child",
dates from 1980. It is widely derided as faddish. "High-quality
time" is not used. In England, up-market, broadsheet newspapers
have been called "the quality papers" since 1961.
Other words that have acquired similarly specialized meanings
are: "fortune" meaning "good fortune" (dates from 1390, and had
precedent in Latin); "luck" meaning "good luck" (1480); "behave"
meaning "to behave properly" (1691); "criticize" meaning "to
criticize unfavourably" (1704); "temper" meaning "ill-temper, short
temper" (1828); "class" meaning "high class, elegance" (1874;
informal; originally a sports term; the term "class act" dates from
1976); "temperature" meaning "feverish temperature" (1898; informal;
an ironic development, since "temperature" once meant to be in
temper, to be free from the distemper that fever indicates); and
"attitude" meaning "hostile attitude" (1962; U.S. informal; probably
from such phrases as "You'd better change your attitude" and "I
don't like your attitude"). Context usually indicates the
specialized meaning, e.g., in "He has a temper"; one would have no
occasion to want to say, "He has a temper, but I'm not going to tell
you whether it's long or short or anything else about it."