The Grammarphobia Blog

“Fast” times

Q: I may be missing a whole category of similar words, but “fast” is the only verb I can think of that requires NOT doing something in order to be doing it. Do you know of any others? Also, it’s odd that something moving quickly is “fast” while something fixed in place is “fast” too–utterly different etymology, no doubt.

A: Strange as it may seem, those three widely different meanings of “fast” are derived from the same ultimate source, firmuz, a reconstructed ancient Germanic root that meant “firm,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“That underlying sense persists in various contexts, such as ‘hold fast’ and ‘fast friend,’ ” Ayto writes.

He says the sense of eating no food “originated in the notion of ‘holding fast to a particular observance’—specifically abstinence from food.”

Ayto adds that the use of “fast” to mean quick probably comes from “an underlying connotation of ‘extremity’ or ‘severity’ ” in the early “firm” sense of “fast.”

When “fast” first showed up in Old English, it was both an adverb meaning firmly or securely and an adjective meaning “firmly fixed in its place; not easily moved or shaken; settled, stable,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest examples in the OED are from King Alfred’s translation (circa 888) of a work by Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy). We’ll quote the citations and translate the Old English.

adverb: “Swiþe fæste to somne gelimed” (“Exceedingly fast and joined together”).

adjective: “Se þe wille fæst hus timbrian ne sceall he hit no settan upon þone hehstan cnol” (“He who wants his house to be fast must not build it on the highest hill”).

The verb “fast,” meaning “to abstain from food, or to restrict oneself to a meagre diet, either as a religious observance or as a ceremonial expression of grief,” showed up less than a century later, according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb is from The Blickling Homilies (971), a collection of Anglo-Saxon religious commentaries: “Þæt ure Drihten æfter þæm fulwihte fæstte” (“After our Lord was baptized, he fasted”).

Some two centuries later, “fast” showed up in its speedy sense as an adverb meaning “quickly, rapidly, swiftly,” according to the OED.

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, “fast” is spelled “veste”:

“He warnede alle his cnihtes … & fusden an veste” (“He warned all his knights … and set sail fast”).

In the early 14th century, “fast” appeared as an adjective meaning quick or swift. The first Oxford citation is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325:

“Sampson … gaue a-braid sa fers and fast, þat all þe bandes of him brast” (“Samson made a sudden movement, fierce and fast, so that all his bindings burst”).

The Middle English phrase “fers and fast” might have been translated as “fast and furious,” an expression that had lost its Samsonian fierceness when it showed up in Modern English in the 18th century.

The OED’s first citation for the phrase, which is defined as “eager, uproarious, noisy,” is from “Tam o’ Shanter,” a 1790 poem by Robert Burns: “The mirth and fun grew fast and furious.”

Getting back to your question, you’re right that the verb “fast,” meaning to refrain from eating, is an odd bird.

Offhand, we can think of at least one other verb that requires, as you put it, not doing something in order to be doing it: “abstain,” in the sense of refraining from drinking alcohol.

Of course “abstain” can also be used in a more general sense, as well as “avoid,” “cease,” “forgo,” “quit,” “renounce,” “spurn,” “stop,” and similar words. Some linguists refer to such terms as “avoidance words” or “words of rejection.”

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