FAST AND LOOSE.

I’ve used the phrase “playing fast and loose” all my life without ever knowing what its history was; now, thanks to Wordorigins.org, I know, and it’s very interesting:

The proximate origin is the name of a con game, along the lines of three-card monte (in spirit, not in actual structure of the game). From George Whetstone’s 1578 The Right Excellent Historye of Promos and Cassandra:
At fast or loose, with my Giptian, I meane to haue a cast.

The game is undoubtedly somewhat older than this, as the metaphorical sense predates this citation by some decades. From Tottel’s Miscellany of 1557:

Of a new maried studient that plaied fast or loose.

The game is described in this quote from James O. Halliwell’s 1847 A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs and Ancient Customs, from the Fourteenth Century:

Fast-and-loose, a cheating game played with a stick and a belt or string, so arranged that a spectator would think he could make the latter fast by placing a stick through its intricate folds, whereas the operator could detach it at once.

Who’da thunkit?

Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    Aha–the same sense as in the Moby-Dick chapter about loose-fish and fast-fish! Very satisfying–thanks.

  2. What is also interesting is that this expression has been reinterpreted, in line the most common modern sense of the word “fast”, to mean “in a reckless or irresponsible manner”. In the original game of “fast or loose”, “fast” obviously had the meaning “firm, immovable” (as in “stuck fast”) The original meaning was “in a craftily deceitful way”, reflecting the nature of the game “fast or loose”.
    It reminds me of “the quick and the dead”, where “quick” in its original meaning was “live”, but thanks to a change in meaning of “quick”, “the quick and the dead” is now interpreted to mean that those who are too slow will lose their lives.

  3. That’s massively interesting. My fiance and I are non-linguists, but always interested in new wordstuff.
    I just turned around and asked him where he thought the phrase came from. He told me it made him think of those martial arts movies in which the villain would fire a gun at the hero, who would dodge each bullet faster than the eye could follow, though perfectly relaxed in a typically Zenlike, casual manner. He thought that the phrase referred to dodging the rules in just such an offhand way.
    On the other hand, I always thought the “fast” and “loose” in the phrase referred to the epothets you might apply to a person who disregarded prevailing sexual mores whenever convenient.

  4. Epithets. (I spell perfectly. My keyboard, not so much. LOL)

  5. Unbolding… Sorry.

  6. He thought that the phrase referred to dodging the rules in just such an offhand way….On the other hand, I always thought the “fast” and “loose” in the phrase referred to the epithets you might apply to a person who disregarded prevailing sexual mores.
    Sounds kind of Freudian :)

  7. “From Tottel’s Miscellany of 1557:
    Of a new maried studient that plaied fast or loose.”
    May I assume, from this quote, that The Hat also has a cherished copy of Farmer & Henley?
    As for “Of a new maried studient that plaied fast or loose,” the 1557 date would allow that it to be the equivalent of our “Fast or lose.” Watch fast, or lose! that is to say. Thus the comparison to Three-Card Monte.
    F & H does say “From the ancient game now known as PRICK THE GARTER,” a party game apparently of fickleness in love, though. This would seem to accord better with the use of the phrase over the centuries — that being by no means, however, a definitive measure in these matters.
    Happy Holidaies to all.

  8. So, fast as in steadfast and ‘make fast’, and loose as in ‘on the loose’? The terms set up a contrast around a question of ‘is it fast, or is it loose?’
    But when ‘fast & loose’ is set among phrases like ‘quick & dirty’ and ‘rough & ready’, it takes on their connotations of imprecision. It’s interesting that this happens with a phrase, rather than just a word. It makes me wonder how many other phrases have changed meanings through just this sort of association.

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