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The etymology of Quicksilver

Quicksilver is one of the names of the element Mercury (Hg), also known as hydrargyrum, from the Greek hydr– (water) and argyros (silver).

The word quicksilver comes from the Old English cwicseolfor, a calque of the Latin argentum vivum (cf. It. argento vivo), literally “living silver”.

Thus, although the ‘quick’ in ‘quicksilver’ suggested the modern sense of ‘fast, rapid’, at the time when the word first came into use its predominant meaning was simply ‘alive’, as in the famous phrase from the King James Bible, ‘the quick and the dead’.

Mercury has fascinated people since it was first discovered.

Qín Shǐ Huáng Dì, an emperor of China, was said to have drunk mercury mixed with powdered jade, a potion which was meant to give him eternal life but in fact killed him instantly. He was buried in a tomb which contained a scale model of his empire, in which the rivers were represented by mercury.

In Islamic Spain, mercury was used to fill decorative pools. And there is a beautiful mercury fountain by Alexander Calder in the Miró Museum in Barcelona.

Medieval European alchemists believed that quicksilver was the ‘first matter’ from which all other metals were derived by modifying the quantity and quality of sulphur it contained. The symbol at the top of the page is the alchemical sign for mercury.

The seven metals (‘bodies terrestrial’) were coupled in astrology and alchemy with the seven known heavenly bodies. Thus, mercury was associated with quicksilver, probably as a result of the famed speed of Mercury (the others were: Sun/gold, Moon/silver, Mars/iron, Saturn/lead, Jupiter/tin, Venus/copper.)

In his MONAS HIEROGLYPHICA (Antwerp, 1564), the alchemist Dr. John Dee provided the following recipe for producing quicksilver:

To fix quicksilver:—Of several things take 2, 3, and 3, 1; 1 to 3 is 4; 3, 2 and 1. Between 4 and 3 there is 1; 8 from 4 is 1; then 1 and 1, 3 and 4; 1 from 3 is 2. Between 2 and 3 there is 1, between 3 and 2 there is 1. 1, 1, 1, and 1, 2, 2 and 1, 1 and 1 to 2. Then 1 is 1. I have told you all.” QED.

In India, alchemy was known as Rasavātam, “the way of mercury”.

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