Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
The word quick has been a part of English for a long time, but back in Old English, it looked more like cwic, and it originally meant “alive.” In fact, before farm animals were called livestock, they were called quickstock. As a noun, quick meant “a living being,” a sense used in 2 Timothy 4:1of the King James Bible, which was published in 1616 but even then used language that was considered archaic: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom …”
Although plants are considered to be alive, quick in the “living” sense would not be used to describe grass, trees, and vines, only animals, and primarily humans. Inherent in quick was the idea that something that’s alive moves, that it’s animated. (Animated and animal are closely related etymologically.) This sense of both aliveness and movement led to a number of figurative uses of the word.
Ground that moves beneath you — and may even seem alive — has been called quicksand since around 1300. Also around the same time, a pregnant woman was referred to as quick once the baby inside her started showing signs of life through movement.
Someone who always has a funny or intelligent response to a comment might seem to have a mind that is more alive than others’, and so is called quick or quick-witted, a usage attested in the late 1400s. And, perhaps because a quick-witted person is often the first to respond, quick by the early 1500s was being used in its most common sense today: “speedy.”
And then there’s quicksilver. This word actually traces back to the original “live” meaning, but it didn’t come about because of some English-speaker’s amazement at the existence of a liquid metal. In the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder, writing in Latin, called the substance argentum vivum, “living silver.” The English quicksilver is a literal translation — a calque — of the Latin name.
Before Pliny, the Greeks referred to quicksilver as hydrargyrum, which is a combination of the words for “water” and “silver” — and is why the element’s chemical symbol is Hg.
Today, quicksilver is more commonly known as mercury, but that isn’t a new name. In ancient times — before English existed — quicksilver was one of the seven known metals. There also just happened to be seven known celestial bodies — the sun, the moon, and five planets (not including Earth). In astrology, these bodies were paired with Roman gods — which is how they got their names — and they were each also associated with one metal.
Mercury is the fastest-moving planet, and Mercury was the fastest-moving god, so it makes sense to link the most “animated” metal with them. Mercury, however, was the only metal to take on the name of the planet/god it was associated with.
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