mercury / quicksilver

Mercury, element 80, has been known since antiquity. The name comes from the association of the metal with the planet Mercury by medieval alchemists. English use of the name dates to the 14th century and it is found in Chaucer’s Canon Yeoman’s Tale, from c.1395, the Canterbury Tale that is a treasure trove of alchemical terms:

What sholde I tellen ech proporcion
Of thynges whiche that we werche upon—
[...]
And of the esy fir, and smart also,
Which that was maad, and of the care and wo
That we hadde in oure matires sublyming,
And in amalgamyng and calcenyng
Of quyksilver, yclept Mercurie crude?

(What should I tell of each proportion
Of things which that we work upon—
[...]
And of the slow fire, and hot also,
Which that was made, and of the care and woe
That we had in our matters subliming,
And in amalgamating and calcining
Of quicksilver, called raw Mercury?)1

The name quicksilver, seen in the Chaucer quote, is even older, dating to Old English. It’s found in a medical text known as Bald’s Leechbook, found in London, British Library, Royal 12, D xvii.:

Wiþ magan wærce, rudan sæd & cwicseolfor & eced bergen on neaht nestig.
(For strong pain, taste rue seed & quicksilver & vinegar on a fasting night.)2

The quick in quicksilver is from the older sense of that word meaning alive, having the properties, especially movement and agility, of a living thing. Mercury is a liquid at room temperature and movement of drops of the metal can resemble a living thing.

The chemical symbol for mercury is Hg, from the Latin hydrargyrum, which is taken from the Greek ύδράργυρος (hydrargyros), or liquid silver.3


1Oxford English Dictionary, mercury, 3rd Edition, September 2009, Oxford University Press, accessed 6 November 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/00306198.

2Oxford English Dictionary, quicksilver, 3rd Edition, September 2009, Oxford University Press, accessed 6 November 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50195025.

3Oxford English Dictionary, hydrargyrum, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 6 November 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50109810

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