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shameless pleading

Like Sixty

Vroom?

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.”

13 comments to Like Sixty

  • marc bratt

    Good research! You can find numerous examples of the phrase “…like sixty” in The Great Brain Series written by John D. Fitzgerald.

    Ex. “Tom’s great brain was working like sixty.”

  • Charles Wheaton

    On the “like forty” tack could the origin be linked to the fort in fortitude, fortify (or even fort!) implying strength and force? Sixty could still be inflation caused by conversion to a number.

    Charles Wheaton, London

  • Vaddy

    “Forty forties” was used in old Russian to express a very big number.

  • Ju

    Richard Feynman uses the phrase several times in “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman”:

    “We were playing along, going like sixty, as our band started to pass in front of the hotel.”

    “So I’m slicing beans one after the other – chig, chig, chig, chig, chig – and everybody’s
    giving me the beans, and I’m going like sixty when the boss comes by and says, “What are you
    doing?”"

  • Bob

    Some older NY Yankee fans might remember the 1961 season when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were chasing Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs. Toward the end of the season, The New York Daily News sports section published a statistical table every day showing how their HR totals compared through the same number of games played. That table was titled “Goin’ Like 60″. It was the first thing I looked at in the paper every morning that summer.
    Great memories.
    P.S. Mantle got injured toward the end of the year, Maris hit 61*. You could look it up.

    • admin

      I was 11, and I was a big Mickey Mantle fan. (It had to be partly because of his alliterative name.) For some reason I never cared for Roger Maris, maybe because, next to Mantle, he seemed a bit weedy.

      I still wear a Yankees cap almost every day out here in rural Ohio. It helps ward off the bad mojo of the OSU Buckeyes fans, who find it very annoying for some reason.

  • I’m not sure the exact origin of the expression, but I know that in 1939 Betty Boop sang:
    People look smart and nifty,
    When wearing a rubber heel,
    People can go like fifty,
    So does an automobile!

  • Caleb_B

    In the 1925 Clara Bow film “The Plastic Age,” the phrase is used. While at a dance, a young man says to Bow’s date that he better go home if he wants to win the race next week. He responds: “I’ll win that race like sixty!”

  • I am 62 years old and spent a lot of time on my Grandparent’s farm in east central Illinois. I heard the expressions “runnin’ like sixty” and “goin’ like sixty” many times from their mouths and others’. The context was always one which either referred to speed –e.g., a truck rumbling down a country road or an animal running or flying (e.g., rabbit running, quail flying) — or dealing with “busyness” (i.e., multi-tasking, working fast to complete something, etc.). I perceived from the nature of peoples’ comments and thus always assumed it alluded to “60 mph” as a relatively fast speed.

  • Teacher

    The phrase “like sixty” appears in Chapter One of James T. Farrell’s Young Lonigan (the first book of the trilogy). “Spike Kennedy, Lord have mercy on his soul, he was bit by a mad dog and died, would get up on one of the cars and throw coal down like sixty, and they’d scramble for it.”

  • C Hernan

    “If she shoots twice, don’t try to fetch anything, but run like sixty.” Walter D. Edmonds, Drums Along the Mohawk, Chapter III, Part 5, Proclamation. Don’t know what it means.

  • Yep, midwest saying for sure … in the boondocks.

  • Ralph E. Shaffer

    Years ago I did a word search in teh NY Times for “going like sixty.” The earliest use there is one that is clearly in connection with speed. Aug. 24, 1896: Four boys rescued after being trapped in a railroad freight car when the train started up. It was “going like sixty.”

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