or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Quick Study

The movie "The Golden Compass" is hitting the movie theatres in a few weeks (I'm making sure I don't have to work on December 8th) and, though some preliminary reviews aren't good and a lot of it will have to be watered down to make it palatable to Americans, I'm severely psyched to see it. (Despite the fact that they don't look like their descriptions in the books, the casting director couldn't really have done better than Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, and Daniel Craig as Marisa Coulter, Serafina Pekkala, and Lord Asriel.) I read the first book in the trilogy a few years ago, and before I was even halfway through it I was at the bookstore to buy the second and third volumes. I've recommended the series to a great many people (once in a bookstore I practically forced a customer to buy the first volume: I hope she liked it) and lent my own set to more than one person: I'm re-reading them now before the movie opens. (I finished the first volume a couple of days ago and am halfway through the second.)

A couple of days ago, the word "fast" appeared in one of the books in the context of "tightly": "held fast" or "caught fast" or something like that. (I can't find the actual line, not that it matters.) It stuck in my head, for some reason, and today at work I was distantly mulling it over when I realized, with a start, that "fasten" comes from this sense of the word "fast".

It probably isn't any great revelation, but it had simply never occurred to me. I hadn't ever given it any thought: "fasten" just seemed to be a word, a unit, which meant "to fix in place"; it was only today that I understood that it was that "hold tight" sense of the word "fast", plus that "-en" suffix that is so common in Middle English adjective-to-verb creations such as "moisten", "dampen", and "lessen". I should have known this--it seems so obvious!--and yet I didn't, but now I do.

All senses of "fast" in English--and there are quite a few of them--are related. The "secured" sense is the oldest: it descends from a Norse word, "fastr", meaning "firm: fixed". After that, the other senses began to emerge: "fast friends" has a similar sense of fixity, and "fast asleep" means "soundly, completely asleep". Because two events, one immediately after the other, could be thought of as being attached to one another, they were "fast" as well, and this sense soon came to mean "quickly", which is the commonest sense of the word today. The sense of "abstention from food", which seems as if it ought to be unrelated, is in fact a cousin, because when you abstain, you hold firmly to your decision not to eat. (And "breakfast", the first meal of the day, is so called because you break your overnight fast.)


Post a Comment

<< Home