haste makes waste / more haste, less speed

Robert W. M. Greaves wrote to me (in July 2010--my [seemingly orig. AmE] backlog is huge!):
I was somewhat surprised yesterday to be asked by an American woman (mid 70s from Montana) what more haste, less speed meant. She had never heard the expression before. I checked with another American friend (woman from Kentucky, in her late 50s) who also didn't really know what it meant but was aware of some younger people occasionally using it.

For me (and I would have thought most people in the UK) this is a piece of folk wisdom parents and grandparents use to admonish children. (In case you haven't come across it before either, the idea is that if you do something in too much of a hurry you'll be careless or make mistakes and have to go back and do it again, so it's actually faster to work more slowly and carefully and get it right first time.)

Have I just happened to hit the only two people in America who don't know the expression?
No, you've hit two members of the majority, Robert.  More haste, less speed (and less frequent variants, like less haste, more speed and more haste, worse speed) is mainly a BrE expression. The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary marks it as UK, and it does not occur at all in the 425-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (but three times in the 100-million-word British National Corpus).  

Americans, on the other hand, say haste makes waste, which is not unknown in the UK, but it's not in the British National Corpus and only 9 times on the guardian.co.uk site (versus 140 for more haste, less speed).  Many people treat it as if Benjamin Franklin first said it, as it occurs in his Poor Richard's Almanack. But look look up haste in the OED and one finds this (my emphasis added):

 6. In proverbs and phrases: chiefly in sense 2.

a1525  (1500)    Sc. Troy Bk. (Douce) l. 1682 in C. Horstmann Barbour's Legendensammlung (1882) II. 275   Of fule haist cummis no speid.
1546    J. Heywood Dialogue Prouerbes Eng. Tongue i. ii. sig. Aiii,   Haste maketh waste.
1546    J. Heywood Dialogue Prouerbes Eng. Tongue i. ii. sig. Aiiiv,   The more haste the lesse spede.
That is, by 1546 both of these phrases were familiar enough to be recorded as English proverbs. The source of these is often attributed to a similar Latin phrase, Festina lente ('make haste slowly'). But if he wasn't the originator of Haste makes waste, Franklin was at least a great populi{z/s}er of the phrase.

Looking a bit more at the history,  the Corpus of Historical American English has two instances of more haste, less speed (in 1869 and 1920) and 11 of haste makes waste--seven of those before 1860. The early 19th-century boom for haste makes waste might have been a Franklin (orig. AmE in this sense) boom, but what's happening around 1860? Something, for sure:

That's a Google Ngram for more haste less speed and haste makes waste in English books generally.  This is American English:

And this is British English:

In each case, more haste, less speed increases in frequency around 1860--where the phrase was used in the name of a story (1856) and in other books.Why the fashion in the UK turned so dramatically in favo(u)r of the longer phrase, I do not know. Perhaps because it's closer to the Latin, perhaps because the rhyming version was perceived as Americanism, perhaps because someone really stylish and influential was using it. I don't know.

What is clear from all of this is that Americans invented neither phrase.  What is suggested from it is that the relative lack of more haste, less speed in AmE could be due to its lack of popularity in English when the AmE was getting going, since it seems to have been rather (orig. AmE) under-the-radar in the early 19th century.  The missing link here is what was happening in the pre-Richard's Almanack 18th century.


  1. What's interesting to me is that the graph seems to show an increase in the usage of "haste makes waste" in recent years in the UK. I'd never heard it before this post. Who is using it and in what contexts? Are we back-learning it from the US?

  2. We do have to be a little careful here about trusting Google Ngrams when comparing the two dialects--especially in more recent years when publishing is much more international. (I've written about that a bit here.) The fact that it's only in the Guardian site 9 times (and that includes reader's comments, which may well come outside the UK).

  3. (Sorry, didn't finish my sentence!)
    ...would seem to indicate it is 'foreign' in the UK.

  4. I (American, 53) learned it from The Lord of the Rings:

    "Ach, sss! Cautious, my precious! More haste less speed. We mussn't risk our neck, must we, precious? No, precious -- gollum!" He lifted his head again, blinked at the moon, and quickly shut his eyes. "We hate it," he hissed. "Nassty, nbassty shivery light it is -- sss -- it spies on us, precious -- it hurts our eyes."

    So while it has been familiar to me from the age of nine (the Ballantine paperback edition of 1966 was my first copy), it has never been anything but a "foreign" expression, though its meaning was intuitively obvious.

  5. Thanks for covering this, Lynne. I don't think I'd come across 'haste makes waste' before. Certainly not often enough to recognise it as proverbial in US or UK English rather than something someone had made up.

  6. Interestingly Br English speakers seem to use 'more haste, less speed' without think about it much because 'haste' and 'speed' mean similar things now. I was taught at school (in England) that the origin was from 'spid' meaning success which makes much more sense....but I don't know anyone else who was taught that so perhaps the increase in 'haste makes waste' is partly because is makes more sense at face value.

  7. @Kerry:

    To me, "haste" and "speed" have always meant quite separate things, with "haste" means something like "a mental state characterized by desperately or frantically trying to do things quickly", and "speed" simply meaning something like "quickness".

    However, many definitions of "haste" online seem much closer to making "speed" and "haste" synonymous. This leads me to wonder whether I adopted my definition of "haste" as a result of the proverb "more haste less speed", which I constantly heard growing up in England.

  8. Kerry

    'haste' and 'speed' mean similar things now

    I don't think so.

    Haste is cognate with hasty which surely denotes unconsidered rapidity — being too quick to start acting, usually with the implication of not giving any thought.

    Speed denotes objectively observed rapidity. It can, of course, be an instantaneous measurement, but when referring to an activity it applies to the whole, not just the start.

    So, More haste less speed means 'The quicker you leap into something without thinking, the slower you will be in achieving the goal'.

  9. I had difficulty as a child interpreting "more haste less speed". I also thought "spare the rod and spoil the child" meant "spare the rod! spoil the child!" Proverbs walk the line between concise and obscure. People disagree over whether "feed a cold and starve a fever" means "you should feed a cold and you should starve a fever" or " if you feed a cold then you will have to starve a fever".

  10. @David Crosbie: "Haste" has negative connotations in "hasty", but not in "hasten" or "make haste".

  11. David,

    Of course, your interpretation of the saying is a perfectly valid one. My comment that 'haste' and 'speed' mean similar things was perhaps not very well expressed, I meant in comparison to the 19th century and the alternative meaning I then offered.
    I mis-typed 'spide' earlier, which does have the alternative meaning of 'success' and the interpretation of the saying then being 'more haste, less success' is one that also makes sense to me in terms of its use.
    I have found an entry in the OED which says (and I'm going to have to abbreviate):
    'Speed 3. Success, prosperity; good fortune, profit, advancement, furtherance
    b. With adjs as good, evil etc: Success, fortune, lot

    1809 MALKIN Gil Blas, v.i p21 You give way to difficulties with more haste than good speed'

    Apologies - there may be typing errors in that but the dictionary has such small text it comes with a magnifying glass and even that isn't always sufficient.

  12. Mollymoody

    For me in all the haste words, the focus is on being quick to get started.

    • With hasty that's a negative thing.

    • With make haste and hasten it's positive. I could substitute Be quick!, but not Be speedy!.

    The haste words also seem all to have connotations of effort — which I don't feel in speed words. This would support the American haste~waste association.

  13. Kerry

    I wasn't denying the older senses or speed — it's just that they don't affect my response to the word as used today.

    An example to add to your list is the expression Speed the plough, which was attached to songs and tunes in the folk tradition. Until now I never actually analysed what it meant because it doesn't really matter — beyond, of course, being a wish for something desirable. I suppose the same goes for God speed!.

  14. The late and much-renowned American basketball coach, teacher, and philosopher John Wooden was fond of telling his players, "Be quick—but don't hurry!"

  15. And ice-skating coaches tell one not to rush, not to rush "You're not Russian!".... same principle.

    And I have just had to throw away a batch of home-made soap which was ruined as I tried to make it too quickly. "More haste less speed" is often the story of my life.... and my husband's, as he is dreadfully prone to rushing!

  16. My grandmother had a little wooden plaque hanging on the wall reading "The hurrider I go the behinder I get." When I google this expression I find websites where people have written "My grandmother had a little wooden plaque hanging on the wall reading 'The hurrider I go the behinder I get.'"

    Also, "Marry in haste, repent at leisure."

  17. Speed the plough

    After posting, I remembered the David Mamet play Speed-the-Plow and looked it up on Wikipedia. The story is that Mamet's source for the expression (an inscription on some old plates and mugs) was probably based ultimately on a rhyme for Plough Monday — which coincidentally is today, Monday 9 January 2012, the Monday after Epiphany.

  18. I (AmE) have never heard 'more haste, less speed", but I have heard and used "Make haste slowly", which always seemed to me to mean "be quick, but be careful, so you don't have to re-do it".

    Haste makes waste, on the other hand, is a fairly common phrase in my experience.

  19. I don't know why it sticks in my head, but the phrase More haste, Less speed pops up in the 1932 Hollywood movie "Jewel Robbery" in which a hairdresser refuses to be hurried by Kay Francis' character.

  20. Amanda P

    Make haste slowly

    Closer than the other two expressions to the Latin festina lente which seems to be the origin of all three.

    According to Wikipedia it was in turn a translation from Greek, but it's the Latin phrase that's (relatively) widely known.

  21. Also related is:

    "Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast."

    This usually seems to be associated with a military context or a shooting context.

    I don't know whether it's more common in one dialect (other than military).

  22. As I translator I always think of how I would say it in my mother tongue. So here's a literary translation of it: The hasty queen made blind kittens. In the sence that if you do things quickly, you get poor results. No reference to wasting time though.

  23. I know you're really busy, but someone shared the following blog post and I would like to read your take on it - http://www.primermagazine.com/2008/learn/10-words-you-mispronounce-that-make-people-think-youre-an-idiot

  24. Yet another interesting case of your saying, Lynne, that a phrase (in this case, "haste makes waste") does exist in UK English, and yet this (free-bus-pass* holding) UK citizen had never heard of it before your post!

    "More haste, less speed", on the other hand, is a saying that I can remember being in common usage amongst all ages even when I was still in primary school (i.e. well over half a century ago), and I've never had any feeling that it was no longer understood.

    * I wonder: is there an American-English equivalent of the attribute "free bus pass" as an indicator of an individual's age of three score years and counting? :-)

  25. Mrs Redboots:

    >> ice-skating coaches tell one not to rush, not to rush "You're not Russian!"....

    Reminds me of the old, cold-war era riddle: "Q. Why are fire engines [AmE: fire trucks] painted red? / A. Because they're always rushin'"

    And that reminds me in turn of the paradox whereby in Europe "red" means "left-wing/socialist/ communist", whilst it seems that in the USA "red" stands for the (right-wing) Republican Party. (I expect, though, that you must have dealt with this already, Lynne.)

  26. I didn't say many British people say it, though. I said it is 'not unknown'. This doesn't mean that you know it, it only means that someone does--since there's certainly available evidence of that!

  27. Sorry, my first comment was to your first comment, Kevin. We seem to have been typing at the same time!

    I don't think I have done 'red state'/'blue state', but 'red' itself also means 'communist in US, most often heard (in my experience) in 'better dead than red'.

  28. Scripsit Lynne: I didn't say many British people say it, though. I said it is 'not unknown'. This doesn't mean that you know it, it only means that someone does--since there's certainly available evidence of that!

    That's a fair enough point, L. It's just that sometimes I feel as if I'm part of a "hidden majority" when I'm told that something I never say -- and have never even HEARD anyone in my country say -- is a part of my country's language. It is, after all, very easy to demonstrate that someONE uses all kinds of foreign phrases in their English -- I don't think these corpora specifically filter out foreign-born or foreign-aping speakers/writers, do they? -- but how many "someONEs" do there have to be before their contribution is truly significant?

    All the same: sorry if I over-reacted!

  29. Kevin: That would be "senior citizen discount", I think. The old in the U.S. get no more than the rest of us for nothing at all, but many things at a reduced price. As for whether something is or is not British English, there are three questions to ask: (a) is it commonly used in Britain today? (b) is it used by a minority in Britain today? (c) was it first used in Britain? Lynneguist is saying that haste makes waste is (b) and (c), though not (a).

    Amanda: To save Lynne's time: the article you link to is the usual ignorant and preposterous rubbish spewed out by someone who doesn't know and doesn't care about the difference between his own prejudices and the way in which the English language is spoken in various places. I read only a few of the comments, but most of them are no better. Don't waste a single second of your precious time on it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, to be sure, but not to their own facts.

  30. I've never heard of "more haste, less speed," and in fact it came across to me as a nonsensical command to go faster, but slower.

    Here in South Central PA, we have a (somewhat) related phrase: "The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get."

  31. Argh, posted too fast and forgot to point out that this phrase is considered to be local (Pennsylvania Dutch) in origin.

  32. Anonymous: See my comment of a week ago. My grandmother was not Pennsylvania Dutch, but my grandfather was.

  33. Are you Brits familiar with and do you use the proverb 'A stitch in time saves nine'? Maybe this is a phrase we can all rally behind.

  34. Anonymous: It's not really a command, more a "piece of folk wisdom" and -- more often than not -- a rueful reflection on events. To give you an example of this that I heard just this morning: the man in front of me at the car park was trying to insert his coins into the ticket machine as quickly as he could, but ended up dropping all his change on the floor while only halfway through the transaction. As he bent down to pick up the scattered coins he sighed and said "More haste, less speed".

    djw: Yes, "A stitch in time..." is well known in BrE too -- although its meaning is "Deal with it now before it becomes a much bigger job later" rather than "Trying to rush things now will only make more work later".

    It's a characteristic of proverbs, I think, the way they so often negate, even sometimes flatly contradict, each other: "Many hands make light work" v. "Too many cooks spoil the broth"; "Look before you leap" v. "He who hesitates is lost".


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)