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Playing Fast and Loose with Meaning in the History of Words

by Anatoly Liberman

Language changes because so many people speak it and because
even today it is impossible to control the norm. A community of English
professors left on a desert island and allowed to breed would probably have
preserved their sounds, forms, and vocabulary intact for a million years (if
this group survived the first winter and if all its members—men and women—had
similar, conservative, political views; both propositions seem unlikely). Few
things are more absorbing than a study of language change, but being part of it
is often disgusting. Books written not too long ago used to speak of corrupted
and garbled forms. Those epithets reflect the view that innovation in language
is a bad thing. Change in pronunciation, grammar, and usage signifies the
collapse of the formerly accepted standard and puts the guardians of the norm on
the defensive. They wince when they hear irregardless, but despite the
overkill (ir- and -less) its victory in popular speech is a
fact. Strange things also happen in syntax. The combined wrath of teachers
and editors can do nothing against the triumph of the rule in Modern American
English, according to which the verb should agree with a word closest to it.
Hence “…the study showed that one in five teens have tried prescription drug painkillers…to get high” (Associated Press) and “The purpose of his statements
are unclear.” When I ask my students what they think of those elegant
monsters, they tend to answer that although the grammar is wrong, such
sentences “flow better,” and indeed they do.

Meaning changes more unpredictably than syntax, so much so
that every now and then a word turns into its antonym. Latin restare
meant “to remain” (from stare “to stand”). Its Old French reflex
(continuation) rester was borrowed by early Modern English and became rest
“to remain in the same position.” Also in the 16th century, restive,
a cognate of rest, appeared in English (from Old French restif);
it meant “immovable, obstinate, inactive.” Horses were called restive when
they did not want to move or follow a course. Someone who refuses compliance
and objects to being restrained shows signs of a fiery temperament. It did not
take the adjective restive long to acquire a meaning opposite of the
initial one: “restless” rather than “restful.”

The story of fast is similar and has been told many
times, but it bears repetition. In steadfast, fast asleep, and make
the line fast, fast
is associated with firmness and immobility. But we
also run fast and eat at fast food restaurants (incidentally, restaurants were
opened as places where food restored customers’ strength, not where
people could rest). How can fast mean both “fixed” and “rapid”?
What then is fast colors? Do they stay or do they fade quickly? Here
is a 1645 example from the OED (Oxford English Dictionary): “He…
gave evidence of his fidelity, as fast as occasions were offered,” that is, “as
soon as.” This usage goes back to Middle English. The phrase fast upon
means “near upon.” “To run fast” merged with “to run hard.” The next step
needs no explanation: if one can run fast and make great progress, one can also
work fast, speak fast, and even spend money fast. Puns are often called
feeble and are known to be the lowest form of wit (this pronouncement must have
originated with some exceptionally dull snob), but the fact remains that the
adverb fast broke loose from its base, influenced the adjective, differentiated
itself from quickly (“I read this book fast and forgot its content
quickly”), and began to live a life of its own—as blatant a case of “corruption”
as any. Having fast in two opposite meanings does not confuse speakers,
for the context resolves the ambiguity. A fast liver (a profligate and a rake)
is also a loose person. What a language!

One of the greatest ventures in the history of American lexicography
was The Century Dictionary, a splendid specimen of polygraph art
and a mine of information. Unfortunately, it was published contemporaneously
with the OED and could not compete with it, but those who use it
regularly cannot help admiring its appearance, the wealth of encyclopedic detail,
and excellent etymologies by Charles P. G. Scott, a name even specialists do
not remember today. In The Century…, I found an especially detailed
explanation of the idiom fast and loose, and will quote it in full
below:

“A cheating game practised [sic] at fairs by gypsies and sharpers, now
called prick at the garter, or prick at the loop. A belt
or strap having been doubled and rolled up, with the double or loop in the
center, is laid on its edge on a board or table; the dupe is then induced to
bet that he can catch the double or loop with a skewer while the belt or strap
is unrolled, but the sharper draws it out in such a way as to make this
impossible. Hence to play fast and loose is to say one thing and do another;
be slippery, inconstant, or unreliable.”

The Gothic verb fastan meant “to keep, hold, observe”
(the Gothic Bible was translated from Greek in the 4th century) and
is probably identical with fastan “to abstain from food, observe
abstinence.” If so, fast is, from an etymological point of view, the
same word, whatever it means, but the identity of fast (verb) and all
the other occurrences of fast has been called into question more than
once. Slavic speakers seem to have borrowed Gothic or German fast “to
abstain from food.” At that time there was no f in their language, so
that they substituted p for it, and, following another rule, replaced
Germanic a with o. Hence the Slavic noun post in its
religious sense. But here, too, opinions differ: perhaps post is
a cognate, not a borrowing, of fast. While excavating the most ancient
layers of vocabulary, one has to make haste slowly.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. John

    The story with the word fast is really intereting. So different meanings leave thogether in this one word.

  2. malcolm spencer

    I was told that the phrase playing fast and loose came from archery. If the archery captain wanted the archers to stop loosing arrows he called “fast” (shortened from standfast) if someone then carried on shooting it was considered dangerous hence the saying playing fast and loose. Sounded feasible to me.

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