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Up to speed

Q From James McAdams: I am accustomed to hearing and using the phrase up to speed. I have always assumed it was a reference to the motion picture industry practice of having film cameras ramp up to operating speed before action is announced. Do you know the origin of this phrase?

A These days, up to speed mostly often appears in non-technical writing in the figurative sense of being fully informed or up to date on some matter: “Kids know much more about these technologies than their parents, and it’s heavy lifting to get the adults up to speed”; “Following the private meeting, the board now is up to speed on the investigation”.

To bring up to speed was reported by the New York Times in 1974 as a new jargon term, in the sense of “to brief”, that had been used during the Watergate hearings the previous year. It seems to have been around earlier than that — there’s a example in April 1970 in a report about the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon shot in which John Swigert was a last-minute replacement for another astronaut: “It’s really a compatibility sort of thing to get him up to speed, in language and responses.”

So many examples refer to a machine being brought up to operating speed — a boat, an electric motor, a car, or indeed a film camera — that it looks as though that was the source. It goes back a long way — I found an example in an advertisement for a waterwheel that appeared in a lot of US newspapers around 1867; a letter from a satisfied customer noted that “The wheel drives all my saws truly up to speed, and gives abundance of power to do all the work the saws are capable of doing.”

However, the origin may not be mechanical but a person or animal that was performing at its best rate. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the New York Times of 1879: “The mare was shown and her qualities and record were expatiated on. She looked decent and up to speed.” I found another in a book of 1857 about a voyage of exploration, in which the writer is chasing a boat that’s floating away, which he knew would leave them stranded if he didn’t retrieve it: “It was this conviction which, combined with my ‘badly-scared’ condition, served to keep me up to speed, while I felt every moment more and more like fainting.”

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Page created 6 May 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 May 2006.