Monday, 24 January 2011

Good-bye, Good Luck, and Godspeed: On linguistic (de)secularisation

What exactly does someone mean if they wish you Godspeed? Here's one answer, courtesy of comedian Eddie Izzard:

In fact, the speed of Godspeed refers to one of speed's other early senses, namely "success" or "(good) luck, fortune, prosperity". The OED's [1] earliest citation for Godspeed is from Tyndale's Bible translation:
[1526] Bible (Tyndale) - 2 John 10   Yf ther come eny vnto you and bringe not this learninge him receave not to housse: neither bid him God spede.
(Roughly: "If anyone comes to you who does not bring this (Christian) learning, don't let him into your house, nor wish him Godspeed.")
In such early uses of Godspeed, it appears that spede is used as a subjunctive verbal form, so that God spede means something like "may God speed (you)", i.e. "may God grant you success/prosperity".
[1597] Shakespeare Richard II i. iv. 31   A brace of draimen bid, God speed him wel.
More familiar is the use of Godspeed as a noun-noun compound, as in:
[1865] J. R. Lowell Polit. Ess. (1888) 229   Every humane and generous heart‥has wished us God-speed.
However, I have reason to suspect that examples like those from Tyndale and Shakespeare represent a later refashioning: in Old English, the verb spēdan does not seemed to have been used a causative (nor does there appear to be any other causative form of it), while the 16th century examples treat it as such (i.e. X speed Y as "may X cause Y to be speedy/to succeed"). 

Rather Old English spēdan meant simply "to speed, to be successful, to have good fortune", in which case, the later Middle/Modern English God spede should have meant something like "may God be successful" (or "may God go really fast"?!). The equivalent of "God causing someone to be successful"  in Old English required a periphrasis of the sort "God gave speed (i.e. success) to someone", as in:
Exodus 153b-4b: þær him mihtig god on ðam spildsiðe spede forgefe
("if Mighty God would grant them success on the destructive quest")
I argue that the origin of Godspeed is in fact as a compound word, formed of good+speed, which was later reanalysed as God+speed, whence back-formations like God spede (ye), with spede being reanalysed as a causative (i.e. "may (he) cause you to be successful").

Before turning to details of the analysis proper, a quick lesson on some Middle and early Modern English sound changes.

First, the Great English Vowel Shift. I won't go into all of the details here, for they don't concern us, but in general the Great English Vowel Shift raised all long vowels (and diphthongised /ī/ to /aɪ̯/ and /ū/ to /aʊ̯/). More relevantly, Old English gōd "good" (noun and adjective) became /gūd/. By other sound changes, Old English gŏd "god" (originally a neuter noun, but a masculine form was innovated in Christian contexts) became /gɔd/, which by later changes became /gɒd/ (British) or /gɑd/ (American). There were yet later changes affecting ū which caused various (and somewhat sporadic) shortenings, sometimes to /ʌ/ (e.g. blood /blʌd/ from OE blōd) and sometimes to /ʊ/, as in the case of good /gʊd/.

Additionally, in Middle English a phonological change occurred which shortened long vowels in closed syllables which preceded another syllable. For example, consider the changes which occurred in vowel of the first member of the compound words shepherd and wisdom, contrasted with the lack of change in the simplex words sheep and wise, as summarised in the Table below.

Old English Middle English
scēap sheep [shēp]
scēaphirde shĕpherd
wīs wīs
wīsdom wĭsdom

Here the simplex words wise and sheep thus remained unaffected (and became, by the Great English Vowel Shift, /waɪ̯s/ and /ʃīp/, respectively), but the vowels of first component in shepherd ("sheep-herd(er)") and wisdom were shortened.

With these sound changes in mind, let us consider what would have happened to a hypothetical Old English compound *gōd-spēd ("good fortune, good luck"): by the Middle English closed-syllable-before-another-syllable rule, this would become /godspēd/, which would thus have become Modern English Godspeed: /gɒdspīd/ (British), /gɑdspīd/ (American). 

If this etymology is correct, then the original sense of Godspeed is good speed, in other words good luck---which makes eminent sense as a formula of well-wishing (note above in the above video clip, Izzard in fact glosses "good luck" as "Godspeed").

 In fact, an Old English form gōd-spēd is not entirely hypothetical: the adjectival form gōdspēdig is recorded in the verse "translation" of Genesis A:
Genesis A 1008b-9b: Him þa brego engla, godspedig gast geanþingade, "Hwæt...'
("The Lord of Angels (i.e. God), the "good-speedy" spirit, answered him: 'Listen...'")
[This is God addressing Cain, right after Cain utters his signature "I am not my brother's keeper" line.]

The question is how to translate godspedig (though, as is typical of Old English manuscripts, the vowel quantity is not indicated, it is fairly obvious that it is in fact gōdspēdig and not gŏdspēdig, given that it characterises God himself). If it is an adjectivalised noun-noun compound (as Bosworth and Toller treat it in their dictionary [2]), then perhaps "rich in good(ness)". But it could be based on an adjective-noun compound  gōdsped "good fortune", and thus mean something like "one is good at success, full of good fortune". 

In any case the occurrence of gōdspēdig in Old English strengthens the case for Godspeed as originating from gōdspēd "good luck" with god spēde "may God speed/grant good fortune to (you)" being a later reinterpretation (with reanalysis of spēde as causative).

Another word which has a similar history is gospel. The original form in Old English was gōdspel "good news", glossing Latin ēvangelium, (from Greek ευαγγελιον (evangelion), from eu- "good" and angelion "message"; but which in classical Greek meant only "a reward for bringing good news," and in the plural "a sacrifice offered on receiving good news"). Now, by the Middle English shortening rule described above, gōdspel would have become gŏdspel, and thus Modern English gospel /gɒspɛl/  (ignoring the loss of the d).

However, in this case, the word was in fact actually reanalysed much earlier, at some point in Old English, as gŏdspel "news about God", apparently based on the written form (which would not have usually indicated vowel quantity), as evidenced by the forms in other Germanic language (the other Germanic peoples were evangelised by Anglo-Saxons): Old Saxon godspell, Old High German gotspell, Old Norse guð-, goðspiall.

Assuming the above proposed etymology for Godspeed is correct: that the original was good speed "good luck" and thus secular in nature, it is interesting to note that exactly the opposite change occurred in the case of Good-bye: an originally religious formula was secularised. Good-bye is a shortening of God be with you(/ye). Here God has been substituted by Good, presumably by analogy with/contamination by other leave-taking formulae like Good Day, Good Night, Good Morning etc.

Godspeed likely originated as a secular formula "good speed" (i.e. "good luck"), but due to a phonological change in Middle English affecting long vowels in close syllables followed by one or more syllables the vowel of the first word was shorten, becoming homophonous with God, thus giving rise to a reinterpretation of spede as a causative verb meaning "cause to succeed" and resulting in formations like God spede "God prosper (you)". While Good-bye originally had religious connotations, being a shortened form of "God be with you/ye", but by analogy to other leave-taking formula like Good Night, God was substituted by Good. 

One secular formula, go(o)d-speed, was thus reinterpreted as religious in nature, and the other, originally religious formula, go(o)d-bye, took on a secular nature.  

[Updates (04-Feb-2011):

Some new information gleaned from the comments at languagehat's blog:

I. MMcM points out that:
(1) Webster (ca. 1830) glosses godspeed as "good speed" [link to Google Books page here].
(2) Tyndale's Bible translation (whence the first citation of godspeed, see above), also includes good speed [link to Google Books page here]: "LORde God of my maſter Abrahã, ſend me good ſpede this daye, & ſhewe mercy vnto my maſter Abraham".

II. Goodspeed also appears as a surname, e.g. Ben Zimmer's maternal line [hattip Ben Zimmer], the author of the 1923 American Translation of the New Testament, Edgar J. Goodspeed [hattip John Cowan].


[1]The Oxford English Dictionary, September 2009 rev. ed.
[2]Bosworth, Joseph and T. Northcote Toller. 1898. An Anglo-Saxon dictionary. London: Oxford University Press.


  1. Wait, you pronounce foot with the STRUT vowel, to rhyme with cut, mutt, putt? I know there are people who don't have the FOOT-STRUT split, like in the North of England, but I thought all of them used something close to [ʊ], the original ME form.

    As Tolkien said, "Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men."

  2. Whoops, I got my examples mixed up - I meant to use blood (corrected now). Thanks for the catch!

  3. An 1838 use of good speed with the modern sense of speed:

    I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
    I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
    ‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
    ‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
    Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
    And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
         —Robert Browning, "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix"

    Note that the 200-kilometer run described (assuming Aix = Aix-la-Chapelle = Aachen) is entirely fictional.

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