Part of a fingernail known as the hyponychium is informally known as the "quick".

It is referenced in the saying "cut to the quick".

What is the etymology of the word quick as in reference to the fingernail?

  • Many years ago when the baby in the womb first showed signs of life i.e. was felt to move it was referred to as 'quickening'
    – user58097
    Nov 24, 2013 at 10:09
  • Is it possible that pulling off a persons finger nail was a medieval method to determine whether a person was dead or alive? Quick or the dead.
    – user201600
    Oct 18, 2016 at 14:11

1 Answer 1


Interesting; to understand this, I reckon you need to look at the original meaning of quick:

alive" is the original meaning of quick. The quick and the dead did not refer to gunslingers in the Old American West, but instead refers to "the living and the dead" as in the Bible, Acts 10:42. The current meaning of quick, "rapid", did not emerge until the 13th century.

It's archaic, but "alive" was the original meaning of "quick".
Now, here comes the interesting part. The flesh under the nail is called quick because the nail, the hard part, is dead, but the flesh is "alive," thus the origin of "quick" as the flesh under the nail:

Some other words still in use today which carry the original meaning of quick include quicklime, literally "living lime", quicksand "living sand", and the noun quick ("the tender flesh under the fingernail or toenail"), referring to the living flesh beneath the dead nail.

Notice that 'quick" can refer to any body flesh as well:

the tender, sensitive flesh of the living body, especially that under the nails: nails bitten down to the quick.

  • 4
    To add a bit more on the etymological side of things, ‘quick’ is cognate to Latin vīvus ‘living’, whence words such as ‘vital[ity]’, ‘vivisection’, etc.; Greek βίος (bíos) ‘life’, whence all the words starting with bio-; and Greek ζωός (zōós) ‘alive, living thing [=animal]’, whence ‘zoo’, ‘zoology’, etc. The development ‘living’ > ‘lively’ > ‘quick/sharp’ is almost universal in the Germanic language, and French vite ‘quickly’ shows the same development. Nov 24, 2013 at 11:30

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