Dear Word Detective: I’m curious about the origin of the phrase “go like sixty” or “run like sixty.” It seems to me maybe a product of the 1920s or ’30s U.S. slang. I first encountered it in a lyric sung by Billie Holiday in an obscure song called “Here It Is Tomorrow Again,” which has at the end of one verse “So kiss me quick and run like sixty ’cause here it is tomorrow again.” I wonder where that phrase came from, but it must have been fairly common at the time to turn up in a song lyric. Sixty miles per hour, perhaps, that being considered a very high speed of travel at the time? — Slidedaddy.
That’s a very interesting question. Sixty miles per hour is still a pretty high speed to drive, of course, especially for some people. They seem to have real problems above about 5 mph. Around here the authorities have taken to painting dotted lines on the road, showing the paste eaters where they should point their cars while turning a corner. It doesn’t work. Isn’t it nice to know we’re sharing the road with people who apparently flunked coloring in kindergarten?
“Go like sixty” rang a faint bell for me, but I can’t say where I’ve heard it before. My first hunch was that your suggestion might well be the correct explanation. Even after automobile ownership became common in this country, the average speeds on our roads were much lower than today. To “go like sixty” might have been the fantasy of every farm boy in the early 20th century, leading to the phrase becoming the equivalent in the popular vocabulary of our “light speed” today.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), however, “like sixty” actually appeared in 1848 with no reference to speed, but rather meaning “with great force or vigor.” The four citations quoted by the OED, in fact, are evenly divided between those that use the term in reference to speed (“We ran like sixty to the front porch,” 1975) and those that use it to mean “with enthusiasm and abandon” (“That child cuts up like sixty,” 1910). The OED then refers us to the earlier phrase “like forty,” popular since the late 17th century, meaning “with great force.” It appears that “like sixty” is just an inflated version of “like forty,” and didn’t, at least originally, have anything to do with speed.
By a stroke of luck, I happened to come across a discussion thread about the phrase “like sixty” on Dave Wilton’s wordorigins.org site, where one poster made an observation that seems to hold the key to “like forty” (and, by extension, to “like sixty”). The number “forty” has long been used, including numerous times in the Bible, to signify a large but indeterminate number of anything. Noah and company endured forty days and forty nights of rain, Jesus wandered in the desert for forty days, as did the Jews for forty years in search of the Promised Land. Many rulers mentioned in the Bible seem to have ruled for forty years. Shakespeare used “forty” as an indefinitely large number in Coriolanus (“On faire ground I could beat fortie of them”), and we still speak of “forty winks” meaning “a good night’s sleep.”
So while Billie Holiday’s songwriter, and many of us since, may have interpreted “like sixty” as referring to speed, its predecessor “like forty” originally meant “with great force,” possibly, as in Shakespeare, with the underlying sense of “the strength or force of forty men.”