‘Word of the Week’ is DYT’s new weekly partnership with author Tim Glynn-Jones. Each week Tim will choose a word, exploring the history behind its meaning, pulling upon an assortment of wry observations on life as well as revealing some surprising historical facts and amusing home truths. This week: Fast

Anyone new to learning English will be delighted to hear that we have a simple little word, ‘fast’, which means moving rapidly, and we have another little word, ‘fast’, which means not moving at all. And then there’s ‘fast’, which means neither of the above.

Got that? Good.

There was a time, back in the Dark Ages, when English was in danger of evolving as a language of just one word, but fortunately someone came up with ‘hwael’ and the floodgates opened. Hence the early Anglo-Saxon poem Faest Hwael, about a fast whale that fasted and got stuck fast.

Faest hwael faesten
Faest hwael faesten
Faest hwael faesten
Hwael stican faest

The subtext needs no explanation. The Anglo-Saxons initially used the word ‘faest’ to mean fixed, as in the way we say something ‘holds fast’ when it’s firmly secured. From this fastness came the sense of holding firm, as a person fasting would have to when faced with a Cadbury’s Creme Egg. Thus the same root, ‘faest’, gave us words like fasten, steadfast and breakfast.

But how did a word that means not moving at all come to mean moving rapidly? Imagine an Anglo-Saxon hunter tracking a deer. All of a sudden a bear bursts out of the undergrowth with a hungry look in its eye. The hunter doesn’t stick around to ask questions, he turns on his heel and starts running. He runs hard, he runs resolutely, he runs without faltering. And guess what, he runs fast. To the Anglo-Saxon, they all mean the same thing.

The Anglo-Saxons did a lot of fasting, and not just because food was scarce. The church designated numerous fast days and if you didn’t observe them you could be excommunicated. Lent was the big one, as well as meat-free Fridays, which gave rise to the tradition of fish on Fridays. The chips and pickled onion came later.

So what have you given up for Lent? In a cunning manipulation of the rules, I’ve decided to abstain from fasting. Or I thought I had. Thanks to a typo, it turns out I’ve given up feasting. So I’m fasting after all. From now until Easter I’m only allowed to eat fast food.


Word of the Week is a collaboration between DYT and author Tim Glynne-Jones. Word of the Week began as a weekly blog in 2016. A book of the first 52 words in the series – Word of the Week: Volume One – is available to buy at word-of-the-week.com.

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