Speed read: the revision of fast and slow

Speed read: the revision of fast and slow

Published this quarter are the revised entries for fast and slow. Although fast and slow are antonyms the entries, and those for derived words, do not exactly mirror each other, instead showing quite different semantic development and coverage of senses.

The earliest senses of the adjective slow refer to negative qualities such as sluggishness (mental and physical) and lack of liveliness. Senses referring to speed or rate of progress emerge in the Middle English period. By contrast fast (the adjective and the adverb) in its earliest use refers to firmness and fixity, before developing a strand of meaning relating to speediness. Although the sense of fast referring to speed is now much more common, we can still see this first strand of meaning in words and phrases such as fast asleep, fast friends, fast and loose, steadfast, and the verb fasten.

It seems somewhat counterintuitive that a word meaning ‘firmly fixed’ should have developed the sense ‘quick, rapid’. Whereas the ‘firm’ sense of fast is found in Old English, the sense to do with speed emerged in the Middle English period, and originally in the adverb rather than the adjective. This sense probably arose as a specific use of sense 5c of the adverb where it is used as an intensifier with the meaning ‘vigorously, hard; thoroughly, greatly’; examples include ‘Wepe fast and be sory’ (a1450) and ‘Fast sheo knokyd, till at the last the ussher opynd the dure’ (a1475). The same semantic development is found slightly earlier in the adverb fastly.

Given fast’s origin and development as compared to slow, it is perhaps not surprising that the two words exhibit different patterns of behaviour. One striking example is the adverbs which are used to correspond to the adjectives. Slow and slowly are both used as adverbs corresponding to the adjective slow, with slow being particularly common with participles, as in slow-cookedslow-growingslow-moving, etc. When slow is used in expressions such as to drive slow and to walk slow it is usually regional or nonstandard; by contrast, the adverb fastly meaning ‘quickly, rapidly’ is rare, with fast being the standard adverb in all contexts. This frequency chart from the Google Ngram Viewer shows just how rare fastly is, compared to slowly:

While here’s the equivalent for quickly and slowly:

We can see similar divergences with regards to the related nouns and verbs. The noun slow has various senses referring to speed including ‘a sluggish person’, ‘a slowly-bowled cricket bowl’, and (in the phrase the slows) ‘a tendency to move or act slowly’. Fast, by contrast, is nowhere near as common as a noun referring to speed. Similarly, the verb slow is frequently found either simply (for example in the car slowed as it reached us) or in the phrasal verb to slow down. There are no equivalent senses in the verb fast (which covers many of the same senses as fasten). Instead verbs such as quicken or speed up are used as antonyms for the verb slow.

The fact that slow and derived words cover a lot more speed-related semantic ground than fast and its derivatives may be due to the fact that standard synonyms for fast, such as quick, rapid, swift, and speedy, are more readily available than those for slow (these synonyms can be explored further in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED , which has adjectival categories for swiftness and slowness). For example, the word corresponding to sense 3a of slow (which covers expressions such as slow to act) is not fast but quick. The Oxford English Corpus confirms this, as ‘quick to’ followed by a verb has a frequency of 7.71 per million tokens whereas ‘fast to’ followed by a verb only has a frequency of 0.88 per million tokens. Similarly, quick-witted is used as the opposite of slow-witted, rather than fast-witted.

The revised entries for fast, slow, and related words illustrate these developments; however, they also contain many smaller items of interest, whether it’s fast fashion, slow food, or the slow burn (a technique of conveying slowly rising anger made famous by the American comedy actor Edgar Kennedy (1890–1948)).

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