There are some words which change their meaning over time but leave behind a footprint of their former senses in expressions and compound words. A great example of this is quick.

Nowadays, quick means ‘fast’ but this was not always the case. The word is of Germanic origin with the original form being cwic or cwicu and it meant ‘alive, animated’. In fact, it has an Indo-European root *gweie-, which also gave the Latin vivus and the Greek bios.

The original sense of the word does still exist now but only in set phrases like the quick and the dead and the fact that the quick and the dead is often misinterpreted with the ‘fast’ meaning shows how outdated the ‘living’ meaning is.

Other words which still contain the former meaning are quicksilver and quicklime: quicksilver, another term for mercury, is supposedly ‘alive’ because of the way the drops of liquid mercury move; quicklime is so called because of its vigorousness and is a direct translation from the Latin calx viva.

In around 1300, quick went from meaning ‘alive’ to ‘moving, shifting’ and it is this meaning which lead to quicksand. Much to Hollywood’s dismay, quicksand is not fast at all, but just moving. In reality, it is almost impossible to sink all the way into quicksand since it is rarely more than a few feet deep. What’s more, you’ll only sink quickly if you panic and struggle. Keep calm, move slowly and, since your body is less dense than quicksand, you’ll eventually get out, which goes to show etymology is not only interesting, but useful in survival situations too.


4 thoughts on “Quick

  1. Love this! I’m addicted to the history of words and phrases, and have a few books I dip into (and then insist on reading snippets aloud from, normally to my long-suffering husband!). I’d like a book on the origins of place names next.

    I think this original meaning is probably most closely reflected in ‘quickening’ – the first fetal movement felt, an establishment and awareness of life or animation. Or of course in the Highlander films 😉 As Wikipedia so succinctly puts it, ‘ Beheading a character known as an “Immortal” produces a powerful energy release from their body called a “Quickening.” Sean Connery ahoy…

  2. Quick and living – very interesting as all of your posts have been! My dad is the one who studies the dictionary daily – Hopefully I’ll have one up on him today! Visiting from A-Z Blogging.

  3. I had to make a brief pass last time, so now taking more time – the photo is quite alarming, and now I see how quicksand came about! Such amazing derivations of word meanings over time. I really am enjoying your theme.

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