Thursday, June 8, 2017

Language of Confusion: Speedy

This one’s for Liz, who last week mentioned she was wondering where the word fast came from. Just don’t expect an explanation that makes sense!

Speed comes from the Old English sped/spedan, which means success or prosperity. Actually, that’s what speed meant when it first showed up in English, too. It didn’t start meaning a rate of movement until the thirteenth century and it didn’t mean moving fast until the sixteenth century. Before it was sped, it was the Proto Germanic spodiz, and earlier the Proto Indo European spo-ti-, which is from the root word spe-, thrive or prosper. Speed didn’t even mean speed. How crazy is that?

In addition to having to do with speed, fast also means to not eat. So do you think those two words are related? Well, it doesn’t seem like it. Speed fast is somewhat uncertain in origin. It was in the lexicon by the thirteenth century and is likely from the Old Norse fast which could mean firmly as well as to be quick. That firmly definition is still in English (like, to hold fast to something) but it’s not used much anymore. It showed up in Old English as faest/faeste, stable, which is related to the word faestan, to fast. Or fortitude. The whole not eat thing is from the religious aspect of the word, which comes from the Proto Germanic fastan, hold fast or religious abstinence. So while I couldn’t find a definite connection between the words, the fact that the Old Norse version meant firmly makes it seem like it has to be related.

Quick comes from the Old English cwic, which…I’m not sure if that spelling makes more sense or less. Anyway, cwic used to mean alive, living, or animate. And the title “The Quick and the Dead” has just taken on new meaning for me. Anyway, it’s from the Proto Germanic kwikwaz, which can be traced back to the Proto Indo European gwei-, to live. I know I’ve mentioned that word before, although I’ll be damned if I can remember when. As for the whole fast aspect of the word, well, most corpses aren’t very quick, if you catch my drift.

Rapid showed up in the mid seventeenth century, fairly recently, probably from the modern French rapide, fast. It’s related to the classical Latin rapidus, rapid, and its verb form rapere, to carry off, plunder or… rape?! This…this took a very dark turn. Um, apparently the “carry off” part became “carry off quickly”, and so that’s how the word got its meaning. But now you’ll never be able to look at it the same way again.

Haste showed up in the late thirteenth century from the Old French haste, which is from Frankish haifst, violence. Now, Frankish is actually a Germanic language, and haifst comes from the Proto Germanic haifstiz, which I think has the same meaning. Apparently the violence part became the “need for quick action”, which then gave us haste. And fun fact, there’s an Old English word haest that means violent or fury and also comes from haifstiz, but is not where we get haste from. For some reason.

Tl;dr: Words relating to speed are surprisingly dark in origin and have nothing to do with speed.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Splendid post indeed, and really insightful. Thanks for sharing!

  2. That does bring new meaning to The Quick and the Dead all right.
    Where does the rushing waters over rocks rapids come from?

  3. That "quick and the dead" thing is from the Bible. I think I was probably 15 or 16 when I had to look that up because the phrase didn't make any sense to me.

  4. Speed - not just a movie with Keanu Reeves.

    I actually met his cousin, Keanti or something like that. He was engaged to a business acquaintance.

  5. So not eating fast and quick fast came from the same source. I did not expect that.

    As for speed, I can see why it wouldn't have meant speed at first. We didn't really have the capability of going fast until fairly recently historically, so we wouldn't have needed that many words for it. Not until we got trains and cars and airplanes...

  6. Not a surprise that a Germanic root word would end up meaning violent.

  7. So interesting that none of them meant move fast to begin with...


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