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The meaning and origin of the expression: The quick and the dead

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The quick and the dead

Meaning

All souls - alive or dead.

Origin

This rather archaic phrase has been used as the title of various films and plays in recent years, notably the 1995 film, starring Sharon Stone. This had a 'gunslinger hits town' plot line and the film's tagline was 'The Quick and the dead - in this town, you're either one or the other'. That clearly uses the popular meaning of 'quick', that is, 'fast' - in this case on the draw. The earliest meaning of 'quick' had nothing to do with speed, it meant 'endowed with life', or more simply, 'alive', as opposed to the current 'lively' meaning. To 'quicken' was to receive life and the first movement of a baby in the mother's womb was called the quickening. This use of 'quick' is extremely old and is recorded, as 'cwice', in an Old English translation of the Orosius Histories, dating from around the 4th century. The word has largely died out now, although we still retain the meaning in words like 'quicksand', that is, sand that moves and has 'life', or the bubbling and gurgling 'quicklime'.

The quick and the dead are referred to several times in the Bible. These texts relate to judgment, with the admonition that only the divine may judge the quick and the dead. The first English citation of the phrase is consequently from the 1385 Wycliffe Bible:

And thei schulen yyue resoun to hym, that is redi to deme the quyke and the deed.

The more easily deciphered King James' Version renders this as:

Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.