Fast (changing meaning)

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Fast is a word whose meanings show some very different developments. There are two different origins:

  • a verb meaning 'to observe', in the sense of 'fulfil a religious or other duty'. Since at least Middle English days, fasting has meant 'going without food and drink, as a religious duty'. (It has also been used more loosely to mean 'not having enough to eat', but the better word for this is 'to starve', or in slightly less extreme examples, 'to hunger' or 'to go hungry'.) Such a religious observance, for example Ramadan in Islam or Lent in Christianity, is labelled by the noun a fast. This word is most commonly seen in the noun breakfast, which used to be commoner as the verb 'to break one's [night] fast' (for a note on its pronunciation, see Breakfast (pronunciation));
  • a verb meaning 'to tie (up)', 'to fasten', 'to attach' or 'to fix'. This verb has given rise to very strange shifts in meaning, particularly in the adjective and adverb.
    • The verb these days is mostly in the form of 'to fasten', meaning 'to tie up' or 'to make secure'. You may also come across phrasal verbs of the type of make fast (common in nautical talk: = 'to tie up') and hold fast. A drowning man may grip fast to a lifebelt. To handfast used to be the verb for 'promising to marry', or 'get engaged'.
    • The adjective originally had the sense 'fixed' or 'fastened' from this verb. This survives in such expressions as a fast colour, meaning one that is fixed and will not fade on washing etc. The idea of fixity came to include an idea of strength, as seen in fastness: another obsolete usage was when a harpoon was said to be fast to a whale. A fast friend used to be a firm or unchanging one, and the adjective (and less commonly adverb) steadfast continues to express that meaning.
    • The adverb has similar meanings, which can be seen in phrases like fast asleep (very much asleep) and fast aground (of a ship that has gone into water that is too shallow, and cannot be refloated). But it was the adverb that saw the beginning of the commonest modern meaning. The obsolete expression 'fast by', meaning 'very close' spatially came to have a temporal meaning 'immediately', and thus to mean 'quickly, rapidly, swiftly'. One could 'ride a horse fast' (i.e. gallop), where previously one could only 'make it fast' (i.e. tie it up, and stop it moving.)
    • This shift in the meaning of the adverb occurred by the 15th century; it was not until the late sixteenth that the meaning can be found in the adjective. Now we have fast cars travelling in the fast lane and fast food, etc. If a clock is fast, it shows a time ahead of the real time; and there are technical meanings in photography, nuclear physics and so on.
    • One last shift in the meaning of the adjective happened through the idea that dissolute people lived their lives faster (more rapidly) than others: that they 'burned the candle at both ends'. Thus they came to be called fast, meaning of loose morals: the fast set in the 1920s was a group of fashionable young people who, in the view of their elders, wasted their lives. To call a young woman a fast piece was to imply that she was sexually promiscuous. (The term was not used of men.) And so the expression 'fast and loose' (which is really just a doublet, ~ 'to be both fixed and unfixed'), indicating inconstancy of mind: 'to play fast and loose' is very like 'to blow hot and cold' - to be variable, particularly in one's affections) could now be made into a joke.

See also fastness.