Advent Calendar 14 – “The almost family”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: February 11, 2021

Hello everyone,

and welcome to day 14 of our Advent Calendar. And those of you who love etymology will love today’s topic as we’ll take a quick look at the family of to fast.
Because that’s actually pretty crazy.
Here’s an overview:

  1. fast – capable of  high speed.
  2. fast asleep – NOT about falling asleep fast but about  sleeping firmly.
  3. to fast  – not eating.
  4. to fasten making tight, your seatbelt on an airplane for instance
  5. fast (German) –  almost.

That’s quite an epic scope of meanings, right? Hard to believe that they’re all connected but they actually are.

The origin of all of them is the super mega hyper ancient Indo-European root *past-, which carried the idea of “firm, solid”.
That is pretty much still the core of the verb to fasten. You make your seatbelt firm, if you will.
It also helps with the phrase fast asleep. You’re firmly sleeping.
And it can even help with to fast in the sense of not eating. You see, back many centuries, the verb to fast was much more general and meant something like “holding, guarding”, which does tie in with the original core idea of solid, tight, firm.
People would use this verb also in a context of self control, “fastening yourself “so to speak,  and since religion and its customs was a central part of people’s lives back then, it makes sense that the verb eventually narrowed to the context of … well.. religious not eating.
Tadah… so far everything surprisingly makes sense.
But what about the last two?

Well, the speed-fast is actually also not all that crazy. The old Vikings had their own version of the word which they’d use in a sense of vigorously, which is not that far from firmly.  You could fight fast but also drink fast and I think you can already see the connection now. You can’t really drink slowly but with vigor. English picked up this Norse version of fast and eventually made it the number one word for speed.

That leaves us with the German fast which means almost. Is this where we finally get the crazy mind bending we all love so much :)?
About 500 years ago, fast was being used to reinforce statements; so basically with the sense of very. And that fits fine with the original idea of firmly, strongly.  But then people started using it  in a sense of very close to. I mean… why not, right?
Hey, don’t get mad at me… I’m just saying what it said in the etymological dictionary.
Seriously though. Maybe there is a deeper logic to this change but I wasn’t able to find it. If you have an idea, let me know in the comments.
And that’s it, this was our quick look at the family of fast. Seems to be all over the place but it’s firmly held together by a common core :).

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