Thursday, 25 February 2016

The quick and the dead

"There are two types of pedestrians: the quick and the dead."

Or so says the blackboard on the side of the pub I drive past on my way to work. Like similar phrases about gunslingers, it plays on the changed meaning of the word "quick".

Well, I'm alive, so yeah.

Shakespeare was the first to use the phrase "the quick and the dead", in Hamlet. (Ophelia, despite being a suicide, is to receive a proper Christian burial.) It was subsequently picked up in the King James version (KJV) of the Bible, which has ensured its ongoing familiarity.*

In both cases, it relies on an (even then) archaic meaning of the word "quick" meaning "living" or "alive". It's etymology can be traced through proto-Germanic and back to proto-Indo-European words meaning "lively" or "alive". In Latin, the same PIE root is evident is "vivere", and in turn to the Spanish viva or the English survive and vivacious. Over time, "quick" changed from "aliveness" to "liveliness", and thence to the sense of "fast", or "moving with speed".

However, in addition to the phrase "the quick and the dead", the concept lives on in "the quickening", the expression still used for when a baby is first felt to move in its mother's womb, that is, when it is considered to have come to life.

*Yes, Shakespeare pre-dates the KJV: Shakespeare is Elizabethan; King James was her successor

Rather heavily plagiarised from
Wikipedia, and Common Errors, and 

1 comment:

  1. In fact the phrase is in William Tyndale's Bible of 1526, so Shakespeare didn't invent it.