Speed is a word with a rather straightforward etymology, but one with several archaic meanings that may be surprising to some. It is from the Old English word sped, which, among other senses, carried the meaning of quickness, swiftness that we are familiar with today.
In Old English the sense of quickness was a secondary and rarer sense of the word. In the extant literature it only appears in the dative plural form spedum and is used adverbially to mean speedily. (In Old English the dative plural of a noun can function as an adverb.) For example, there are these lines from the Old English poem Genesis, 2033–35:
Him þa broðor þry
æt spræce þære spedum miclum
hældon hyge-sorge heardum wordum.
(In that conversation, the three brothers very speedily healed his heart-sorrow with hard words.)
In Middle English speed is still mainly used adverbially, but as part of an adverbial phrase, often with a preposition. An example from the mid-thirteenth century poem The Story of Genesis and Exodus, line 1598:
Fro bersabe he ferde wið sped.
(He went from Beersheba with speed.)
It isn’t until the Early Modern period that speed starts to be widely used as a general noun meaning quickness, as in these lines from Milton’s 1667 Paradise Lost, 2:699–700:
Back to thy punishment,
False fugitive, and to thy speed add wings.
Going back to Old English, the Anglo-Saxons more commonly used sped to mean abundance, wealth and power, might. These senses died out in the early part of the Middle English period, not being found after about 1250, so they are among the words and meanings that didn’t survive the transition from Old to Middle English.
The Anglo-Saxons could also use sped to mean success, good fortune. This sense of speed was somewhat more successful and is commonly found into the early modern era. It is still found in Scottish dialect and in the old-fashioned, but not quite obsolete, wish of good speed.
The verb to speed follows a similar pattern. The Old English verb spedan means to succeed or prosper. It isn’t until the Middle English period that it starts to be used to mean to hasten.
In its Indo-European roots, speed is part of a larger group of words relating to swaths of time and distance and movement toward a goal. Some examples from other languages include the German spät (late), the Latin spatium (space), and the Old Slavic speti (to thrive).
Speed also has some specialized meanings that have developed with technology. The sense meaning the gear ratio of a bicycle, as in a ten-speed bike, dates to 1866 and the early forerunner of the bicycle, the velocipede. The application of the word to photographic film dates to 1892. One wonders how long this photographic sense will survive into the digital age—probably for quite a while as digital cameras also have a speed setting and film will probably remain in use for specialized applications for decades to come. And the use of speed as a slang term for methamphetamine is first attested to in 1967, one of the children of the Summer of Love.
Bosworth and Toller, “sped,” “spedan,” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 1898.
Liberman, Anatoly, Word Origins...And How We Know Them, Oxford University Press, 2005, 192.
“sped(e (n.),” “speden (v.),” Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001.
“speed, n.,” “speed, v.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton