Printable Version
Pronunciation: ê-væst Hear it!

Part of Speech: Interjection, verb

Meaning: Stop, cease, hold up there, wait up.

Notes: The loss of English-speaking pirates resulted in the loss of this word from the English vocabulary. I can only recall its being used in books and films about pirates, but apparently it was used by lawful sailors, as well. Avast may be used as a verb, too, as in expressions like, "Avast laying about, laddies!"

In Play: If every cloud has a silver lining, every sunny sky must have a cloud. The disappearance of English-speaking pirates also cost us such expressions as, "Avast there matey! I need a word with you," or "Avast ye young scalliwags!" or even, "Time to splice yer mainbrace, stow your bilge, avast yer scurvy dog!"

Word History: Everyone assumes this is the English version of Dutch hou'vast, an abbreviation of houd vast "hold fast". The first Dutch word comes from the same Germanic source as English hold. In fact, the English word is pronounced [houd] in Eastern Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey. In German we find halten "hold" from the same source, Proto-Germanic haldanan. Originally, it meant "to tend, watch over", a sense preserved in English behold. Vast shares a source with English fast in the sense of 'make fast, fasten'. We can trace it back to PIE past- "solid, firm", evidence of which we find only in Germanic languages. Fasting also comes from this word, so we are not surprised to see it in breakfast, originally the meal you broke a fast with. Shamefaced also arose from this word. In Old English it was sceam- "shame" + fæst "fixed", converted by folk etymology when the meaning of fast changed.

Dr. Goodword,

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