Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
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.