The Grammarphobia Blog

The quick and the late

Q: Your recent post on “late” reminded me of a question I’ve always had. In the Nicene creed, we say, “He will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.” Is “quick” in that sense—living—at all related to the use of “late” in the sense of dead?

A: Our post last month about “late” notes that since the 1400s the word has meant dead or recently deceased. That’s a long time.

And for much longer, since early Old English, “quick” has been used to mean alive. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is from Beowulf, possibly written as far back as 725.

However, the fact that these two words are semi-opposites—and on two different fronts—is mere coincidence.

Both “late” and “quick” came into English from old Germanic sources, “late” in the 800s and “quick” in the 700s, according to OED citations.

But originally they weren’t opposites in any sense.

“Quick” originally meant alive or animate. It didn’t come to mean swift or rapid until 600 or 700 years later.

“Late” meant slow or tardy when it was first recorded in writing in the late 800s. Six centuries later it was used to mean deceased.

In other words, “quick” was late in taking on its meaning of swift. And “late” wasn’t so quick in taking on its sense of dead.

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