You’re about to board an airplane to travel to where you’ve never been before, and where you had no idea you’d ever visit – all the way to the Canadian tundra, to check out a new site for a uranium mine. Of course this isn’t a typical event in a person’s life. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who got on a plane to do that, and I’ve never seen a uranium mine, either. But I do know what someone might wish for you just as you are about to board the plane, and you notice that it’s a small one, and you are puzzled by the large rubber bands that appear to be bound to its propellor.
“Godspeed,” says your friend.
“I sure hope so,” you say.
What does your friend mean by that? Does he want you to get there more speedily? Maybe – maybe he also has seen the rubber bands, and thinks that they can’t have that many hours left in them before they snap, and you have to land somewhere in Saskatchewan, and then think how sorry you will be! But he may also be wishing you good success: and that’s what the speed part of the word used to mean. In Shakespeare’s time, if you asked somebody how he sped, you were asking him whether he had good luck, whether his business got on well. I’m not sure how the plant got its name, but you’d expect that something called speedwell will be good for you, and in fact the American speedwell, with pretty little five-petaled violet flowers, can be eaten, all but the roots, and is tasty and full of nutrients.
How did the word go from meaning success to velocity? Well, if you think about it, isn’t it often the case that your speed or success depends on how speedily you get something done? The first battalion to take the high ground has a big advantage. A job is opened, and you are the first on the spot to apply for it. The early bird gets the worm: he’s speedy, and so he speeds.
Now, when you wish someone godspeed, you are saying a quick prayer: Godspeed thee! That is, God prosper you: may God give you success. But the word also existed in Middle English, as an adverb meaning successfully: that is, with good speed, with good results. The god- meaning good and the god- meaning God were a natural pair in English, and the one often implied the other.
As for the speed, it comes from an old Indo-European root meaning prosperity. Its descendants show how people long ago might have associated prosperity with things that strike us as unusual now. So Sanskrit sphira, one of the descendants, means fat! Sure: you want good harvests, don’t you? And Russian spet’ means to get ripe. Sure: you don’t want the potatoes to rot before you can make vodka out of them. But then there is Latin spes, hope: and that gets us back to the good wishes your friend gives you as you board the plane, or to the apostle, who reminds us that by hope are we saved.
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