Mind your language

The Streatham stabbing is being investigated at pace. But what does that mean?

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

In Arnold Bennett’s Tales of the Five Towns, a young dog called Ellis Carter takes a girl for a drive in a dogcart (a little open carriage pulled by a horse, not a dog, the use of which for traction was made illegal in 1854) on a Sunday afternoon, until the spirited mare he is driving pulls to the left, bringing them into collision with a lamp post, which is bent in half. The respectable folk of Bursley are scandalised, though as news spreads, Ellis’s fellow young dogs regard him with an expression that says: ‘Well, you have been going the pace!’

Today, preparations for the climate jamboree in Glasgow are continuing at pace, the government says, just as the Streatham stabbing was investigated at pace. This useful phrase suggests urgency but supplies no hostage by way of a deadline.

In a race, runners want to keep pace with the pack, and on the hunting field plucky riders go the pace. As with Ellis, going the pace can also be metaphorical.

Despite government public-relations people’s best efforts to turn at pace into a meaningless cliché, it at least retains the monosyllabic flavour of plain English. Of course it comes from Latin; passus is the past participle of pandere,‘to extend’, as the feet are extended when pacing. (Pandere also came to mean ‘to dry’, since things are stretched out to dry; hence the Spanish pasa, ‘dried grape, raisin’.)

A perfectly good adverb apace exists, meaning ‘speedily’, though it sounds a little antiquated. In that curious poem by William Falconer,The Shipwreck’, studded with seafaring terms, the ship fires a broadside to destroy a dangerous waterspout. Soon after, it runs into a storm. ‘Braile up the mizen quick! the master cries, / Man the clue-garnets! Let the main-sheet fly!’ Then he barks: ‘Bear up the helm a-weather!’ after which, ‘The prow with secret instinct veers apace’ — as it would. Falconer himself was lost in the Indian Ocean with the Aurora in 1770.

It would be nice to witness a touch on the tiller of public policy being followed apace by the veering of the ship of state, but I think we shall have to put up with its secret instinct continuing unseen.

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