Information Architecture and the Etymology of “Godspeed” and “Goodbye”

Sketches on notebook paper of ominous symbols and the word “godspeed”
YouTube screencapture

Etymology is a meaningful part of my profession. Especially when working on Information Architecture and information design. It isn’t always a factor when considering language usage, but it does come into play. In any case, for a grammar enthusiast like myself it’s super fun to dive into the etymology of any given word, rabbit holes and all.

Recently I was curious about the religious connotations of “godspeed.” Etymology tells us that its original use was a contraction of “God speed you,” meaning “may God bring you success.” So, yes, it is rooted in religion. But there’s another potential ambiguity in the part “speed.” Godspeed has nothing to do with motion; it’s a well-wishing for someone embarking on a journey. Most people know this, but not everyone.

Screenshot of a dictionary definition of the word “godspeed”

Etymology tells us that “speed” didn’t mean quickness until Anglo-Saxon times. It originally meant originally meant “success, prosperity, good fortune; profit, advancement, furtherance.” At lower literacy levels, though, use of “speed” may be ambiguous. So etymology and modern usage matters, and this word is ripe for misinterpretation depending on the context.

But, wait, there’s more…

During my research I learned that Godspeed isn’t alone in its religious ambiguity. It turns out that “goodbye” also has religious roots, originally meaning “God be with you” (or “ye” given the lexicon of the time). However, “good” was later substituted on the pattern of phrases such as “good morning” and “good evening.” So “God be with ye” was shortened to “Godbye” and later converted to “goodbye.”

Etymology graph for the word “goodbye”

But “goodbye” doesn’t share common religious ambiguities with “godspeed.” It’s virtually non-existent because the word “God” isn’t present, as with “godspeed.” However, Merriam-Webster lists “godspeed” and “goodbye” as synonyms. In modern definition they are closely related, but historically they are nearly interchangeable. And capitalization of the “g” in “godspeed” is optional, likely being a factor in how it is interpreted in relation to religion.

So the religious connotations of “godspeed” are ambiguous at best, with capitalization being a strong factor in its interpretation and its general ambiguity amplified by its etymological use of “speed.” And “goodbye” was once religious but comprises no religious ambiguities in modern usage. Great.

Now that I’m out of the rabbit hole…where was I with my IA research?

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