on the qui vive


Chaucer reciting - early 15th-century manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

Chaucer reciting – early 15th-century manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde
(Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)






on the alert, attentive





The French phrase qui vive ? literally means (long) live who?. It is a sentry’s challenge, intended to discover to which party the person challenged belongs, with an expected answer of the form vive le roi !, (long) live the king!, vive la France !, (long) live France!, etc. It is composed of the interrogative pronoun qui, who, and the third person singular present subjunctive of the verb vivre, to live.

It is first recorded in an English text in The Memoirs of the Count de Rochefort (1696), a translation of Mémoires de Mr L. C. D. R. (1687), originally written by the French novelist Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras (1644-1712):

I travell’d two Leagues without any opposition, and was just rejoycing to my self that I had escap’d, when four Horsemen very well mounted discover’d me; and one of them coming up to me with the usual question of Qui vive, or who are you for? I had no sooner answer’d, Vive France, but he bid me surrender my self, or I was a dead man.

The phrase on, or upon, the qui vive, which corresponds to the French sur le qui vive, is first recorded in a letter dated 15th October 1726 that the Irish satirist and poet Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote to the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and the English poet and dramatist John Gay (1685-1732):

As for your tripartite letter which begins with his lordship, I think, gentry, it should be settled what foot we are upon, and how you intend we are to live together in absence. His lordship takes the office of a critic, and is in a dozen lines acting a critic, telling me of a very indifferent letter. Is it imagined that I must be always leaning upon one hand while I am writing with the other, alway [= always] upon the qui vive and the slip-slop*, instead of an honest plain letter?

(* slip-slop: a blunder in the use of words)


An equivalent of qui vive ? is qui va là ?, who goes there?. The first known user of who goes there? is the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400) in Troilus and Criseyde, a poem set during the Trojan War. Criseyde’s uncle, Pandarus, tries to push her into bed with Troilus. On the pretext of a storm, Criseyde’s uncle, Pandarus, has convinced her to stay at his house in a private room. He surprises her by bringing Troilus into the room through a trapdoor:

The fierce wind so loud began to roar,
that no one any other noise could hear;
and those who lay without, at the door,
slept securely, all together there,
and Pandarus, with full sober cheer
went to the door as soon as he could,
where they lay, and softly did it shut.
As he came back secretly,
his niece woke, and asked: ‘Who goes there?
‘My dear niece,’ he said, ‘it is I:
do not wonder or let it make you fear.’
And he came near, and said in her ear:
‘No word, for love of God, I you beseech:
let no one rise and hear our speech.’
          original text:
The sterne wynd so loude gan to route,
That no wight oother noise myghte heere;
And they that layen at the dore with-oute
fful sikerly they slepten alle y-fere;
And Pandarus with a ful sobre cheere
Goth to the dore anon, with-outen lette,
Ther as they laye, and softely it shette.
And as he com aȝeynward pryuely,
His Nece a-wook and axed, ‘who goth there?
‘My dere Nece,’ quod he, ‘it am I.
Ne wondreth nought, ne haue of it no fere.’
And ner he com and seyde hire in hire ere,
‘No word, for loue of god, I ȝow biseche:
Lat no wight rise and heren of oure speche.’

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