Superannuated Syntax: Fast Might Not Mean Quick

“Tight Times at Ridgemont High”?

“The Tight and the Furious”?

Karen, what in tarnation are you on about now? Those titles make no sense.

Nope, they don’t. I’m playing with words to introduce today’s topic: “fast,” in the sense of “tight” or “secure.” As in “hold fast,” or “steadfast,” or even “a fastener.”

One of my Google Plus folks told me her students are often confused by the usage of “fast” in this sense. I suppose my voracious reading habits as a child helped me, there. I read a lot, and I read classics. I don’t mean “children’s classics.” I mean, in 8th grade I read Gone with the Wind, Green Mansions, and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (among others). I read books written in the previous century, and I was exposed to usages from that time as written by British authors.

I’ve been doing this word thing for longer than I realized . . .


A quick look over at the Online Etymology Dictionary first shows the adverbial meaning (firmly, securely), then the adjectival (constant, secure, followed by rapid or quick). I’m not discussing the verb form (to abstain from food, or to pledge) or the noun form (the act of fasting); my experience and my discussions with other folks tell me that those meanings are pretty well understood these days.

Fast as an adverb comes from Old English via Proto-Germanic (and I’m delighted to see Old Frisian listed as well), and the meaning of “quickly” was established by around A.D. 1200 according to Mr. Harper. The adjectival meaning of “steadfast, strong, constant” also comes from the Proto-Germanic (and again I see Old Frisian!), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European and Sanskrit.

Etymology is SO COOL.

The meaning “rapid” shows up in the 1550s, considerably later than the other. “Fast” as in “fast living” appears in the mid-18th century.

That adjectival meaning of “secure” is directly related to the verb “fasten,” meaning “to make fast, make firm,” and again we’re looking at the Proto-Germanic roots. (Pay attention: That’s “fasten,” not “fast.” The first comes from Old English faestnian, the second from Old English faestan. “Fast” as a verb, as I said earlier, means “to abstain from food.” “Fast” as a verb meaning “to secure” was overtaken by “fasten.”)

Also related is a very cool-sounding noun, “fastness.” That means a castle, someplace easily defended and held fast.

Now, for some reason, I want to reread Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.”

Or perhaps some Langston Hughes. “Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.”

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