The quick and the dead (idiom)

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The Quick and the Dead is an English phrase originating in the Christian Bible and popularized by the Apostles' Creed, one of the earliest statements of faith in the Christian religion and still one of the most widely used in worship.


The use of the word quick in this context is an archaic one. Here, the word specifically means living or alive (a meaning still retained the idiom quickening as the moment in pregnancy when fetal movements are first felt and also in the "quick" of the fingernails.[1]) It is derived from the Proto-Germanic *kwikwaz, which in turn was from a variant of the Proto-Indo-European form *gwih3wos – "lively, alive", from the root *gweih3 "(to) live" (from which also comes the Latin vivere and later the Italian and Spanish viva, and whose root is retained in the English words revive and survive).[2] Its English meaning in later centuries shifted to "fast", "rapid", "moving, or able to move, with speed".[3]

In the King James Bible[edit]

The phrase is found in three passages in the 1611 King James version of the Bible: in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10:42), Paul's letters to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:1) and also in the First Epistle of Peter, which reads

For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you: Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.
1 Peter 4:3–5

This passage advises the reader of the perils of following outsiders in not obeying God's will. Specifically it warns that those who sin, both the quick and the dead, will be judged by Jesus Christ. In other words, it implies that God is able to act on the sins of a person whether that person is alive (quick) or has passed into the afterlife (dead).

In the Apostles' Creed[edit]

In the Apostles' Creed the phrase appears in the following passage (taken from the Book of Common Prayer).

He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Secular usage[edit]

The phrase has been commonly used as a title for novels, films, and other popular cultural entities, in some cases to describe the act of gunfighting.

Modern authors use this phrase in secular contexts because of the modern English meaning of the word quick[original research?] meaning fast or smart rather than alive, either as the result of a misunderstanding or for the purposes of creating a double entendre (i.e., quick vs. dead in the context of gun battles can play on the fact that the being fast is widely believed to be a prerequisite for winning, and by implication, staying alive).


  1. ^ Definition of "quick": See esp. #14,15.
  2. ^ Definition of "quick": See esp. the origin of the word
  3. ^ Definition of "quick":