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Word of the Day: QUICK

I’d like to post here a regular jeu d’esprit – taking the form of a glance at a word and its history. That’s because words open up to us some truths about man, the strange embodied spirit who invented the words in the first place. Why not then begin at the beginning, with QUICK?

I say so because some people used to believe that a child in the womb was granted a soul at the point of its QUICKENING, and some people now, including Catholics who ought to know better, use their opinion to justify the killing of small children in the womb. So we should pay attention to what the word means.

In 1859, Dr. Horatio Storer, writing in the North-American Medico-Chirurgical Review, set forth the case that, because the child in the womb was alive from the moment of conception, abortion was tantamount to murder. Storer was at that time a young physician, a graduate of Harvard, and a devout Quaker. It would be another twelve years before he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. He was writing, then, not as a Catholic theologian, but as a reasoning man and a scientist. Storer noted that QUICKENING – the moment when the mother first felt the child kicking in her womb – was of no moral or scientific significance. He argued that this supposed “change” happened along a wide range of days within a woman’s pregnancy, and sometimes never happened at all. It had to do, he said, not with something crucial happening in the fetus, but with the rising of the womb from the pelvis, and other circumstantial and irrelevant factors. And what is the fetus supposed to be, before this QUICKENING? There are only two possibilities, said Storer. It is either alive, or it is dead. If it is dead, QUICKENING, he said, “is therefore as unlikely a period for the commencement of fetal life as those others set by Hippocrates and his successors, varying from the third day after conception, to that of the Stoics, namely birth, and as false as them all.” But death, he notes, cannot exist, “except as a finality.” If the dead fetus is not expelled but remains in utero, “it must either become mummified or disintegrated; it can never again become vivified. If, therefore, death has not taken place, and we can conceive no other state of the fetus save one, that, namely life, must exist from the beginning.”

The very word, QUICKENING, was thus based upon faulty science. It meant that at that moment the whatever-it-was in the womb became QUICK. That didn’t mean that he started to kick. It meant that before then he was inert, not living, and now he was QUICK, ALIVE: see the early modern English rendering of the Creed, wherein we say that Christ will come again to judge THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. That’s right. The belief, embedded in the word itself, was that the developing child in the womb was not even ALIVE in any sense, but was rather an accretion of stuff, and that only upon some magical moment did it come to life. Now, of course, we know that that is nonsense. Yet we believe what is worse than the nonsense. People in Storer’s time believed that it might be permissible to kill the child in the womb because it was not yet QUICK. We know better, and yet insist that it is permissible anyway, because we want what we want, and don’t care overmuch how we get it.

The word QUICK is fascinating in its own right. It comes without change in pronunciation from Anglo Saxon CWIC, ALIVE, and has cognates in Latin and Greek, though it isn’t easy to see them. The Proto-Indo-European root that it comes from is gwei-, and that gw- was quite prone to change, as tribes of our linguistic ancestors from the Eurasian steppes migrated here and there and everywhere, one after another. Round your lips as if you’re about to say W, but say G, and then follow it with the W. Your lips almost touch. If they do touch, you will find yourself saying not G but B. That initial GW shows up in Greek as the rounded labial consonant B: Greek BIOS, LIFE; cf. BIOLOGY, the study of LIFE (cf. Welsh BYD, LIFE, as in LIFETIME; also WORLD). If you round those lips and say GW but stretch out and emphasize the W, you may get what happened in prehistoric Latin, namely the reduction of initial GW- to W-, spelled with the character V: Latin VIVERE, to LIVE; from that verb and its kinfolk we derive English VITAL, VIM, VIGOR, VITAMIN, VIVID (meaning LIVELY in color or light), REVIVE, and so forth. In another direction the GW- turned into ZHW- and ZH-, and this change produced Greek ZOE, also LIFE. In Greek, BIOS is what we’d call LIFE, as in LIFETIME; cf. BIOGRAPHY, while ZOE has to do with the vitality of plants and animals, that is, with BEING ALIVE.

Meanwhile, that initial GW- became, in the Germanic tribes, CW-, as per Grimm’s Law, and yes, that’s the Grimm of the Brothers Grimm, who took time off from amassing old folk tales to write treatises on linguistics; cf. Latin GENUS, English KIND; Latin GENU, English KNEE; Latin GELUS, English COOL. So we have QUICK, whose old meaning survives in a few odd uses and in compounds. When you pare your fingernails too close and they bleed, it is because you have cut them TO THE QUICK, that is, down to where the cells are ALIVE. Mercury was called QUICKSILVER because of its roly-poly action: the little balls of poisonous metal seemed to be ALIVE. If you step into QUICKSAND, you’ll get swallowed, because the wet and soggy stuff won’t stay in one place. It acts as if it were a hungry animal.

How did QUICK then come to mean SPEEDY, FAST? Well, you can’t dart about here and there unless you really are QUICK. Don’t we say to a worker goofing off, using a different word to the same effect, that he’d better “step LIVELY” or “look ALIVE”?