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The meaning and origin of the expression: Fast


What's the meaning of the word 'Fast'?

Stable and firmly fixed in place; not easily moved.

What's the origin of the various phrases that use the word 'Fast' ?

Usually, when we use the word 'fast' we mean 'rapid'. In recent years the fashion for dieting has brought about an upturn in the use of 'fast' to mean 'abstain from food' (notably in the Fast Diet, which uses both meanings of the word). So, how can a dye be fast and what's the meaning of expressions like 'stuck fast' and 'fast asleep'?

To make sense of those we need to forget dieting and speeding and call on a third meaning of fast, which is, 'firmly fixed in place; not easily moved'. That is the 'fast' that is the source of 'fasten'. Although we don't often use 'fast' to convey that meaning in everyday speech it does persist in the language in several old expressions that have stood the test of time. Here are a few of them.

Fast asleep

To be soundly asleep has been called 'fast asleep' since the 16th century. The English historian John Foxe used the expression in his history of Protestant martyrs Actes & Monumentes, 1570:

The olde Byshop of Norwich... was fast a sleepe.

See more on 'fast asleep'.

Fast going

'Going' is the name given to the ground that horse races are run on. There are many gradations that describe the precise nature of the ground, for example the going might be called 'good', 'firm', 'soft', 'bad', 'heavy' etc. To these we can add 'fast' and we might expect fast going to mean rapid. In fact it means firm and stable. Confusingly, firm and stable ground makes for the fastest run races.

Hard and fast

Hard and fast rules are those that are rigid, inflexible and definitive. If a contract is 'hard and fast' it cannot be broken. Here's an early example of the use of that in print, from The Colchester Chronicle, November 1853:

His Honor summed up remarking that if the jury were satisfied there was an agreement for £23 10s. they would find for the plaintiff, but they thought there was never hard and fast bargain, and that it was loose from first to last, then they would decide in favour of the defendant.

See more on the nautical usage of 'hard and fast'.

Make fast

'Make fast' is synonymous with 'fasten to' and is used most frequently in regard to the tying up of boats.

It is first found in print in the 15th century and is found in several versions of the Bible, for example the King James Version Acts 16:24:

23 And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:

24 Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.

Play fast and loose

On the face of it 'fast and loose' seems anomalous, as fast means fixed and loose means the opposite. In fact, that's the point of this expression, which means 'to ignore one's obligations at one minute and acknowledge them at another; to be slippery or inconstant'.

See more on 'play fast and loose'.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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