Word Routes

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Moving with Deliberate Haste

President-Elect Obama has begun to assemble his nominees for Cabinet posts — something he had promised to do, in his first post-election press conference, "with all deliberate haste." If deliberate means "marked by careful consideration or reflection," and haste means "overly eager speed (and possible carelessness)," doesn't that make "deliberate haste" an oxymoron?

William Safire takes up the question of this apparent contradiction in terms in his most recent "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine. What Obama said at his press conference was: "I want to move with all deliberate haste, but I want to emphasize deliberate as well as haste." Since Obama was choosing his words, well, deliberately, there's no question that he intended to highlight the tension between careful consideration and eager speed, as befits the urgent yet weighty task of picking Cabinet appointments.

In Obama's "deliberate haste," Safire hears an echo the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered school segregation to be abolished "with all deliberate speed." Safire quotes the words of Justice William Brennan a decade after the decision: "There has been entirely too much deliberation and not enough speed. The time for mere 'deliberate speed' has run out."

"Deliberate speed" is a legalism of long standing. For his Political Dictionary, Safire consulted with Justice Potter Stewart, who directed him to a 1912 decision by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that drew on English chancery law. Fred Shapiro, author of The Yale Book of Quotations, found references to "deliberate speed" in American legal usage back to 1844, with earlier echoes in the work of Sir Walter Scott (1817) and Lord Byron (1819). Recently, the researcher Stephen Goranson uncovered an even earlier example in an essay from 1802.

To my ears, "deliberate haste" sounds much more oxymoronic (but not moronic) compared to "deliberate speed." Why? Well, haste inevitably implies hurriedness, but speed can be a more general term. As the Visual Thesaurus defines it, speed can mean "a rate (usually rapid) at which something happens." Note the "usually rapid" part. Something can move at a slow speed, and we don't consider that an oxymoron.

Think of these cases that resemble slow (or deliberate) speed:

  • narrow width
  • short height
  • thin thickness
  • young age
  • light weight

All of these can be said without fear of contradiction, while inverted combinations like wide narrowness, high shortness, and thick thinness would raise a few eyebrows.

The reason for this asymmetry has to do with what semanticists call "scalar meaning." In English, as in other languages, we're constantly ordering things by comparing the extent to which they have a particular property. We use gradable adjectives to describe these properties, often with two opposites that pinpoint the ends of a spectrum: short/high, young/old, narrow/wide, etc. One interesting feature of these pairs of opposites is that the adjective at the "positive" end can very often stand for the entire property that's being measured. That's why in English we say "six feet high" (not short), "three inches wide" (not narrow), and "ten years old" (not young). And that's also why the nouns for important scalar properties correspond to the positive end of the spectrum, like height, width, age, and speed.

The linguist Ellen Prince explained some of the semantic ramifications (in a Language Log post on why there's no such thing as "reverse sarcasm"):

One's beauty can be zero, meaning one is ugly, but one's ugliness being great doesn't make one beautiful. Likewise, height is unmarked for how high/tall one is but shortness must be short; one's intelligence can be so low that one is stupid but one's stupidity can never get high enough to make one intelligent.

Similarly, speed is "unmarked" for how fast you are, while slowness must be slow. Haste, on the other hand, doesn't seem to lie on one of these semantic scales from "marked" to "unmarked." That explains why deliberate speed sounds unexceptional (at least to me!) but deliberate haste sounds contradictory.

Obama is following a long tradition of slow/fast ironic tension, it turns out. Safire observes that Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether he favored the immediate emancipation of slaves, quoted the Latin motto festina lente: "make haste slowly." This expression, attributed to the emperor Augustus, found its English counterpart long before Lincoln: Ben Franklin, that proverb-meister, put "make haste slowly" into Poor Richard's Almanac in 1744. With old Ben and Abe, it looks like Obama is keeping some good rhetorical company.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 25th 2008, 8:04 AM
Comment by: Juan G. (Santiago Chile)
Very good example of "contradictions" in English, and yet related to current political events. Congrats.
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
A fascinating article. Delighted that Obama's use of "deliberate haste" has been cleared.
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
This is a fascinating article. It got me thinking of a scale which hasn't allowed the 'positive' end to stand for the entire property being measured, and I came up with 'cold and hot'. We can't refer to 'cool heat' but only to 'cool temperature'. Temperature is the scalar standard.

Wondering why this should be so led me to one possible answer: in the case of opposites that have yielded scalar standards such as 'width' or 'height' (pronounced 'heightth' in parts of the UK, by the way) or 'length', the opposites more or less stand alone. There are no adjectives to describe something that is between short and long - we have to resort to the scalar standard and call it 'of medium length'.

This is not the case with 'cold/hot' which are at both ends of an array of adjectives to describe states in between those extremes. So we don't have to resort to a scalar standard and say 'of medium hotness/heat' because we can say 'warm' or 'tepid' or 'cool' or 'chilly'. Also, it is probably relevant that although at first 'cold/hot' seem to be equivalent to 'narrow/wide' etc, there are measurements (and words) *beyond* each of these apparent extremes - thus, ice-cold or freezing is colder than 'cold', while 'boiling' or 'steaming' are probably hotter than 'hot'.

If I may make one final point on this intriguing insight into words we use without thinking:

Although 'high' has been co-opted to be the scalar standard for distance from the ground, 'tall' and 'lofty' are synonyms of 'high' and yet they have been fated to remain humble adjectives. Why was 'height' nominated to be the standard and not 'tallth'?

I love it when linguistic 'answers' raise more questions, don't you?
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 12:16 PM
Comment by: Emily O. (Oakland, CA)
I'd like to hear more about "deliberate." To me it has the connotation of reflect and "think on" (in the verbal form). So, yes, it is contradictory to haste which has a messy, unplanned feel to it. The more logical equivalent to the phrase would be: "let's proceed with deliberation but without wasting time." But that takes much longer to say; I guess I have to accept it as a well-turned phrase, after all.
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 2:21 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
If we chose to understand the adjective 'deliberate' in its meaning of 'on purpose/wilful' (as in 'I made a deliberate effort to unsettle him'), then 'with deliberate haste' wouldn't get near to being oxymoronic, for it would simply mean with purposeful haste, haste that isn't down to chance; hurrying because we mean to hurry, not because we are accidentally stumbling into haste or because we have no other choice; we *could* take action slowly, but we are deliberately choosing to act quickly, with deliberate haste. Are we guilty of coating the adjective with a layer of its verbal meaning, 'to ponder' etc, thus 'with ponderous haste'?
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 2:47 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
"Deliberate haste" aptly describes the mindset required to pass the Law School Aptitude Test.

I was motivated to seek admission to law school by my legal block instructor at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. In my 30's, married, with three children, I wanted to get into law school as soon as possible. Everything had to happen in quick succession. The application deadline, for the last LSAT offered which would allow me to enter law school without waiting another year, was a couple days away. The time for preparation was short with work hours long.

I purchased some practice tests. The first two gave me loads of confidence. The LSAT had nothing to do with law and everything to do with logic and reasoning, skills honed obtaining my undergrad degree in Philosophy. I scored two 100's in a row, it was going to be a cakewalk!

Then I took the third practice test under the time restraints that would be placed on us during the LSAT. I scored a 46. So much for the cakewalk. Not having any time to mope, I motivated myself to add some haste to my deliberations of the test problems.

I had the opportunity to take two more practice tests before the real one. The score increased on each one and I could feel the ability to deliberate with haste getting stronger. I would have liked to have taken a couple more practice runs, but time did not allow. Fortunately, my scores were sufficient to gain admission. Deliberate haste had won the day.
Friday November 28th 2008, 11:33 PM
Comment by: darrell C. (avon lake, OH)
Deliberate haste! What an invigorating concept. However, at this point I must admit I am more curious to know what practice test did you take for the LSAT, particularly since I am interested in going to law school? By the way, I am also in my 30's and married with children- thus time is at a premium.
Thursday December 11th 2008, 4:10 PM
Comment by: Roy C. (Hollister, CA)
"Deliberate haste" seems to me yet another example of "free" speech in which the originator and audience conspire to enjoy so much the feelings created by the collision between the words that perhaps they need not concern themselves with their meanings. What such speech is "free" of is rational communication.

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