The Grammarphobia Blog

How fast is Godspeed?

Q: When Phil Everly died the other day, Nancy Sinatra tweeted, “I love you Phillip–Godspeed.” I’ve always assumed “Godspeed” is short for something like “May God speed you on your way.” But why speed? Why the hurry?

A: The “speed” in “Godspeed” has nothing to do with quickness. In fact, the word “speed” itself didn’t mean quickness when it first showed up in Anglo-Saxon times almost 1,300 years ago.

The noun “speed” (spelled spoed in Old English) originally meant “success, prosperity, good fortune; profit, advancement, furtherance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED cites this early example from a glossary, written around the year 725, of Latin and Old English terms: “Successus, spoed.”

Similarly, the verb “speed,” which showed up in the late 900s, meant to succeed or prosper. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The Battle of Maldon, an Old English poem dating from 993.

Here’s the citation in Modern English: “No need to slaughter each other if you speed [are generous with] us.”

Although the “success” sense of “speed” is now considered obsolete or archaic except in Scottish English, according to the OED, the usage lives in the term “Godspeed” (also written “God-speed” and “God speed”).

The “Godspeed” usage first showed up in the 1300s in verbal phrases like “God spede me” and “God spede thee,” meaning “May God give you success” (or “prosperity” or “good fortune”).

The OED’s earliest citation is from Sir Tristrem, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330: “He may bidde god me spede.”

And here’s an example from around 1385 in the “The Knight’s Tale,” the first story in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: “God spede yow go forth and ley on faste.”

In the 1500s, according to the OED, people began bidding one another “God speed,” especially “to express a wish for the success of one who is setting out on some journey or enterprise.”

The dictionary’s first example of this usage is from the Tyndale Bible of 1526: Yf ther come eny vnto you and bringe not this learninge him receave not to housse: neither bid him God spede.”

And here’s a 1597 example from Shakespeare’s Richard II: “A brace of draimen bid, God speed him wel.”

By the way, don’t confuse “Godspeed” with the old phrase “good speed.” (The word “good” was sometimes spelled “god” in Old English and Middle English.)

The expression “good speed” is a separate usage, in which “speed” in the old sense of success was coupled with adjectives like “good” or “evil.”

Among the OED citations is this line from Daniel Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720): “The King wished us good Speed.”

So when, you’re probably wondering, did “speed” get its speedy sense?

The noun “speed” took on its sense of quickness a few hundred years after it showed up in Old English meaning success, prosperity or good fortune.

The OED’s earliest example of “speed” used in the sense of quickness is from an Old English manuscript of Genesis believed to have been written sometime around the year 1000.

The citation begins after God promises the elderly Abraham and Sarah that they will soon have a son. Here it is in modern English: “Then at once after the speech they departed with speed, eager to be gone.”

Oxford‘s earliest example of the verb “speed” used in this sense (Egipte folc hem hauen ut sped) is from a manuscript of Exodus, dating from around 1250, in which the Egyptians speed the Israelites—that is, force them to flee in haste.

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