Haste and speed

A friend asked me to investigate the expression more haste, less speed as it doesn’t seem to make sense. I’ve always interpreted as meaning you should do something more hastily and less quickly, which seems illogical to me.

The OED defines haste as:

1. Urgency or impetuosity of movement resulting in or tending to swiftness or rapidity; quickness, speed, expedition (properly of voluntary action).

2. Such quickness of action as excludes due consideration or reflection; hurry, precipitancy, want of deliberation, rashness.

The primary meaning of speed is given as:

Quickness in moving or making progress from one place to another, usually as the result of special exertion; celerity, swiftness; also, power or rate of progress.

So both words are related to swiftness, but haste can also indicate imeptuousness. There are a number of other meanings of speed though, which are now obsolete:

1. abundance; 2. power, might; 3. Success, prosperity, good fortune; profit, advancement, furtherance.

I suspect that the speed part of ‘more haste, less speed’ might be using speed in the sense of success, good fortune, etc. That would make more sense.

Then again, maybe the saying means that if you doing something hastily, you will also do it more slowly. So maybe it’s encouraging you to slow down, take your time and do it better.

How do you interpret this expression? Do you know any simliar ones?

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This entry was posted in English, Language, Words and phrases.

12 Responses to Haste and speed

  1. Margaret says:

    Simon, I understand it to mean: if you hurry more, you will end up slower – as you say at the end. The more hasty you are, the less speed you will manage.

  2. Mut says:

    In French we have a similar expression: “confondre vitesse et pr├ęcipitation” (“to mix up speed and precipitation”). I understand it as “to mess up something because you wanted to do it too quickly”.

  3. lukas says:

    In German, we have “Eile mit Weile!”, meaning “take your time, even if you are in a hurry.”

  4. Michel says:

    And in latin : “festina lente”.

  5. Jerry says:

    In Dutch: “haastige spoed is zelden goed” literally translates to “hasty haste is rarely good”. “Spoed” can be translated as haste as well as speed. In this sense, it’s more towards “haste” than “speed”. So it’s an expression with a pleonasm and rhyme!

  6. Yenlit says:

    The original meaning of this saying has become confused over the years and I thought the older sense of ‘speed’ as meaning ‘advancement’ etc. along the lines as ‘godspeed’ (may god prosper you) is what was originally meant in the saying?
    Closest Welsh adage would be:
    Mwyaf y brys, mwyaf y rhwystr.
    More the hurry, more the obstacles (or hindrance)
    Modern Welsh tends to drop the final letter now ie. mwya(f) and ‘brys’ is English ‘brisk’ or vice versa?

  7. Eee says:

    This is really interesting because I parsed the phrase completely wrong until I got to the comments section. I took both parts of the phrase to be imperatives, as in: “(Act with) more haste, (and) less speed.” Which makes no sense, obviously, because acting with more haste is a bad thing. And I don’t see how you can be hastier while also going slower.

    It was only when I read a few comments that I realized it should be parsed as “more haste (results in) less speed”.

    Regardless of my errors in comprehension, the phrase reminds me of a quote that is often used in sports in America: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” I believe it’s attributed to the late basketball coach John Wooden.

  8. Petréa Mitchell says:

    I agree with Margaret’s interpretation. I’ve never heard the expression used here in the northwestern US, but I recall hearing it used in a British cartoon, and in that context it was clear that that was the meaning.

  9. Jon Galton says:

    A similarly confusing expression in the same sort of construction is “Spare the rod and spoil the child” which sounds like an instruction, but actually means “[If] you spare the rod, [you will] spoil the child”.

  10. The expression makes perfect sense to me, and always has.

    Speed is quickness. Haste is quickness in conjunction with carelessness.

    So the expression simply means that if you do something quickly but carelessly, it might actually take longer to get the job done than if you’d taken more care over it in the first place (e.g. cleaning the table then in the process knocking something over and having to clean it again).

    I am surprised if this is not common knowledge.