Cut to the quick

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The phrase cut to the quick is one of those English idioms with a long history, derived from a word that is rarely used in present day. We will examine the definition of the expression cut to the quick, its origin and some examples of its use in sentences.

To cut to the quick means to injure someone emotionally, to hurt someone with words or an action. To cut someone to the quick means to deeply distress them. For instance, a person who is sensitive about his weight will be more than insulted if someone calls him “fatso”, he will also be hurt emotionally, or cut to the quick. Someone may be cut to the quick by a remark that plays on their insecurity in some way, whether or not the remark is true or false. The term cut to the quick includes the usage of the word quick in an archaic sense, and as a noun rather than an adjective. In this sense, the term quick is derived from the Old English word cwic meaning alive or animated, probably derived from the Dutch word kwik which means bright and lively. Without knowing this definition of the word quick, readers may be confused by this idiom. Historically, writers used the word quick to refer to the living, in juxtaposition to the dead. The phrase appeared in the William Tyndale translation of the New Testament: “I testifie therfore before god and before the lorde Iesu Christ which shall iudge quicke and deed at his aperynge in his kyngdom” (2 Timothy 4:1) The phrase the quick and the dead was used in the titles of two films; one about a female gunslinger and one about American soldiers in World War II.  Today, the use of the word quick to mean living is largely limited to metaphor used by the literary author and the poet. The idiom cut to the quick refers to cutting through the dead parts of something until reaching the living, sensitive part of that thing. Most people associate the etymology of cut to the quick with cutting to the quick of a fingernail. The quick of a fingernail, also known as the hyponychium, is located beneath the hard nail. It is very sensitive. Related phrases of the idiom cut to the quick are cuts to the quick, cutting to the quick. Synonyms that may be found in a thesaurus are degrade, humiliate, injure, mock. The term cut to the quip is a mishearing or an incorrect spelling of the phrase cut to the quick, and is incorrect. Sometimes, cut to the quick is used to mean to get to the heart of the matter. This is incorrect, confusing this idiom with the expression cut to the chase.


Cut to the quick, the presidency issued an angry, patrician rebuke suggesting rather curiously that Dr Saraki was rude and offensive in his language. (The Nation)

While the piece has been binned as a “gutless editorial”, it is hard not to wonder whether Mr Trump has been cut to the quick, so severely that he had his dander up in course of a midterm election campaign. (The Statesman)

“It was one of the few times in my life that I reacted in the moment and I cut him to the quick straight away.” (The Independent)