Wednesday, 2 June 2010


shamefaced is a folk etymology. The Old English word was sceamfæst, a combination of sceamu "shame" and fæst, which was a common suffix similar to ful. Sceamfæst meant "bashful, modest".

Ther nas no lak, but that he was agast
To love, and for to speke shamefast.
- Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women

Since this use of fast fell out of use, the second element in this word was reanalyzed as faced.

fast meant and still means "firm, fixed" and was from Proto-Germanic *fastuz, from Proto-Indo-European *past- "solid, firm". The verb fast "to abstain from food" is from the same PIE root, by way of Old English fæstan from Proto-Germanic *fastējan "to hold fast, observe abstinence". Breakfast is from break plus the Old Norse verb fasta "to fast", also from *fastējan.

The adverb fast shifted from meaning "firmly", as in stand fast, to "stoutly, strongly vigorously"

Tristrem as aman, Fast he gan to fiȝt
- Sir Tristrem, c1320

And then to "quickly".

Takens, war-thurgh he may understande, þat þe day of dome es fast comande.
- Hampole, The pricke of conscience, c1340


CIngram said...

My EFL students are always fascinated (they listen attentively anyway) to learn that neither 'fast' nor 'quick' originally meant anything of the kind. I have a little vignette prepared with words and phrases like steadfast, shamefast, to fasten, to make/hold fast, quicksilver, quicklime, to the quick, the quick and the dead and so on.

You could argue the same for rapid, I suppose, and maybe even swift, but they're not so interesting.

goofy said...

that's true: quick: alive, rapid: seize, swift: sweep.