Modern English uses quick primarily to mean ‘speedy, hasty, rapid, fast,’ but phrases like cut to the quick and the quick and the dead point to the adjective’s original meaning. The modern quick traces back through Middle English quik, Old English cwic(u), and Primitive Germanic *kwikwaz to Indo-European *gwi-wo-, which meant ‘living.’ To cut to the quick is to cut to the inner “living” part of something, as opposed to a less sensitive outer part. The quick and the dead are the living and the dead, but even a century ago the phrase was already archaic, archaic enough for a certain J. Thomas J. Heflin to have some fun in his address to the annual meeting of the American Cotton Manufacturers Association in 1920:
More seriously, with respect to a pregnancy, quickening is the time when the developing baby first indicates it is alive by moving enough for the soon-to-be mother to feel it.
Indo-European *gwi-wo-, the source of English quick, gave rise in Latin to forms in which the labial element of the original gw predominated. Those include the ancestor of Spanish vivo, Latin vivus ‘alive,’ which the Romans pronounced wiwo; and the ancestor of Spanish vivir, the Latin verb vivere ‘to live,’ which the Romans pronounced wiwere. Some cultures have conceived time as linear, others as circular. If we go with the second, we can watch the etymological circle closing: a Spanish speaker who sees the written word wiwo and tries to pronounce it will say something close to the ancient *gwi-wo-.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman