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Fast and the Furious – From Scottish Hootenanies to Street Racing

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The eighth installment in the Fast and the Furious franchise was released in April 2017, and their continued box office success gives moviegoers and word-lovers something to cheer about. Beyond the stunning action sequences, though, let’s take a moment to appreciate the movie’s title, The Fate of the Furious, which sounds awesome. That probably has something to do with its alliteration, a figure of speech in which a consonant sound at the beginning of a word is repeated (in this case the sound of the letter F). The alliteration is suspended here with a two-syllable separation, just like in the first movie’s title, The Fast and the Furious, which also helps make these titles sound like lines from a poem.

Well, it turns out the phrase fast and furious actually does come from a poem! It first appears in a 1793 piece,  “Tam o’ Shanter” by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, in which he depicts the thrill of a country dance:

As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew,
The dancers quick and quicker flew.

Since the mid-19th century, the phrase fast and furious has been an idiom meaning “swiftly, intensely and energetically.” But as this Google Ngram shows, the phrase didn’t really become an often-used idiom until after the 1820s, almost thirty years later:

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What caused this little-known phrase to go viral? Burns’s phrase likely got a huge boost by being quoted in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott had met Burns as a teenager and was a poet himself, but late in life wrote a series of historical romances collectively known as the Waverley novels, which became wildly popular in both Europe and America in the 1800s. (Stroll through an antique mall or two, and chances are you’ll come across a some sets of Waverley.)

But before Burns and Scott used the phrase, the meanings of both fast and furious had already evolved. The word fast in Old English meant something more like “firmly, strongly, vigorously” than it meant “speedily”. (Think: to hold fast.) But if one event occurred fast on another event (a metaphor), it was so quick it was almost attached to that event; so fast began to describe speed. In the mid-18th century, fast also became a slang term to describe “living an unrestrained life” (often in reference to a “fast woman”.) Furious, meanwhile, came from the Latin furiosus, “full of rage,” which itself derived from the Furiæ, vengeful spirits of Greco-Roman myth. But if these two words seem to describe an out-of-control person on a raging bender, how did fast and furious become a great thing to be?

The Romantic movement of early 1800s English literature was a watershed moment in the history of cool. In Burns’s 1793 poem we already see how the phrase fast and furious is used describe mirth and fun. Another writer who wrote in the generation after Burns, Thomas De Quincey, was among the first to write appreciatively about doing drugs and staging wild carriage races on the British highways, while poets like Lord Byron and Percy Shelley played their own roles in making being bad seem rad. Without the cultural influence of these Romantic renegades, it’s questionable whether there ever would have been any Fast and the Furious movies (or many other examples of pop culture badassery, for that matter) in the two centuries that followed.

Of course, the Fast and the Furious movies also would never have happened without cars. Invented at the turn of the 20th century, the car quickly became iconic, particularly in America, where it came to represent the freedom (and danger) of the open road. By 1908 early cars were already being raced in high-profile events, like the New York to Paris Race. So, both cars and the phrase “fast and furious” were well-established in popular imagination when director Roger Corman made a 1955 noir film titled The Fast and the Furious, featuring a plot about a group of outlaws racing cars with dangerous women. Corman’s film inspired both the title and the subject matter of the new Fast and the Furious series, which began in 2001. The question is: did either of them know it had all started with hootenanies?

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