The quick and the dead (idiom)

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The Quick and the Dead is an English phrase originating in William Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament (1526), "I testifie therfore before god and before the lorde Iesu Christ which shall iudge quicke and deed at his aperynge in his kyngdom" [2 Tim 4:1],[1] and used by Thomas Cranmer his translation of the Nicene Creed and Apostles' Creed for the first Book of Common Prayer (1540).[2] In the following century the idiom was referenced both by Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603) and the King James Bible (1611). More recently the final verse of The Book of Mormon (first published in 1830), refers to "...the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead".[3]


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 in the "quick" of the fingernails,[4] and in the idiom quickening, as the moment in pregnancy when fetal movements are first felt[citation needed]). Another common phrase, "cut to the quick", literally means cut through the dead, unfeeling layers of the skin to the living, sensitive tissues below.[5] Quicksilver, an old name for the liquid metal mercury, refers to the way droplets of mercury run around and quiver as if alive. 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).[6]

The English meaning of "quick" in later centuries shifted to "fast", "rapid", "moving, or able to move, with speed".[7]

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 the First Epistle of Peter. The last reads:[8] "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".

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).

Shakespeare's Hamlet[edit]

This idiom is quoted in Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, written in 1603, lines 5.1.131-139, where Hamlet and a gravedigger converse about the burial of Ophelia, who committed suicide, yet is still receiving a proper Christian burial.

It also occurs later in the scene (line 255) and is said by Ophelia's brother, Laertes, as he laments her death. He first asks the gravedigger to hold off throwing the "earth" onto Ophelia's body and jumps into her grave. From the grave, Laertes says, "Now pile your dust upon the quick and the dead . . . " He implies wanting to be buried with Ophelia as a sign of his deep grief. This burial of the quick and the dead is symbolic for how emotionally bereft and dead the living feel as they bury a loved one.

In the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds[edit]

In the Nicene Creed the phrase appears in the following passage (taken from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662).

[He] ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of the Father.
And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.

In the Apostles' Creed the phrase appears in the following passage (also taken from the 1662 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 become commonly used as a title for works of popular culture, in some cases to describe the act of gunfighting. (See The Quick and the Dead.) Modern authors use this phrase in secular contexts because of the modern English usage of the word quick[original research?] - to mean 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, wherein speed is widely believed to be a prerequisite for winning, and thereby, by implication, staying alive). In a similar vein Isaac Asimov, in explaining the term "quicksilver", jokingly suggested that modern readers probably think "the quick and the dead" is a reference to pedestrians in Los Angeles.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "2 Timothy 4".
  2. ^ "The Book of Common Prayer - 1549: The First Book of Common Prayer". The Book of Common Prayer.
  3. ^ Book of Moroni chapter 10 verse 34
  4. ^ "Quick". See esp. #14,15.
  5. ^ "Idioms: Cut to the quick".
  6. ^ "Quick". See esp. the origin of the word.
  7. ^ "Quick".
  8. ^ 1 Peter 4:3–5

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