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Technically, you should expect the term low speed, not slow speed (which is obviously illogical).

However, it seems the two phrases co-existed as long as one can look back: with low speed fighting a desperate battle to prove its merit.

It is only recently that English users seem to have seriously recognized the difference as this nGram shows.

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How did this obvious error survive and even now continue to assert itself? Or is it that from the language point of view, there is an argument that both the phrases are correct, grammatically, especially, semantically?


[Edit-1] Some backgrounder on slow and speed
slow /slō/
Adjective: Moving or operating, or designed to do so, only at a low speed.
Adverb: At a slow pace; slowly.
Verb: Reduce one's speed or the speed of a vehicle or process.

If slow = low speed
then slow speed = ?

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15  
Why is slow speed “obviously” illogical? It may be mildly redundant, but language is full of redundancy, and being redundant is neither illogical nor ungrammatical. –  nohat Jan 23 '12 at 9:36
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You are perfectly entitled to avoid using the expression "slow speed" if you wish. Other English users will continue to use their language as they know it, untroubled by ultimately irrelevant arguments about logic. –  Colin Fine Jan 23 '12 at 15:40
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We say "high elevation" and "large size". By your logic, "high size" and "large elevation" should be equally correct. But nobody uses these. –  Peter Shor Jan 23 '12 at 16:23
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If slow = low-speed then slow speed = low-speed speed. What's the question here? –  nohat Jan 23 '12 at 17:50
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Is 'How did this obvious error survive?' a real question rather than a peeve? I haven't close-voted, because your second question is interesting if a little prescriptivist: but I'd be happier for some judicious editing. –  TimLymington Feb 2 '12 at 11:32

6 Answers 6

One may say "a fast speeding car". And one can travel "faster than the speed of light". So, "fast" and "speed" do collocate. As has been discussed, speed simply indicates the rate of change resulting in a movement that may be relatively "fast" or "slow". Of course, one also says "a high speed chase". But here I'm inclined to surmise that "high" is used for effect, and not because the the noun "speed" requires it. In other words, the use of "high", "low", "fast" or "slow" is optional, depending on the intent of the author. One is therefore per se not "more correct" or "accurate" than the other. To paraphrase Einstein "it's all relative".

English it a tool of expression as much as it is a tool of communication. Thus, it must offer individuals latitude to articulate their thoughts in a manner they deem fitting. The only restriction is that these thoughts need to be comprehensible to others, if the purpose of communication is to be served.

This is why we have standards within which there is a rich vocabulary from which one can select. I'm advocating here that one simply respect that fact and conclude that slow speed can be no more correct than fast, high, or low speed.

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You didn't ask:

Why did 'low speed' become dominant over 'slow speed' when it did?

I'm not one to let that stop me from answering the wrong question. I think the answer is that "low speed" was dragged along in the wake of "high speed", so to speak.  Since the antonym of "high" is "low", it became the more obvious word to use, especially when used in contrast. See this nGram. It suggests a related question, which may shed light on the original:

Why is "slow speed" used, but "fast speed" not?

It might be as simple as ease of pronunciation - "fast speed" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

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+1 Very interesting take. Understandable from literary point of view, though technically an incorrect inference: one would expect high speed to be far, far ahead in prevalence compared to low speed in any case. It is no honor to flaunt a tag of low speed for any product or process. –  Kris Feb 4 '12 at 3:56
    
@Kris, all true, but the correlation in the shape of the curves can't be ignored, and isn't common to other topics (though it is to "slow speed" as well. So I'm thinking that speed became something more frequently talked about (cars?), especially "high speed", and once it did, it made "low speed" preferable to "slow speed" because "high" vs. "low" works better than "high" vs. "slow". –  Ed Staub Feb 4 '12 at 15:38
    
Umm, with 38,800 results in Google books, can you say that "fast speed" isn't used? It's a lot less common than its opposite, but that's it. –  Irene Feb 7 '12 at 13:41
    
@Irene, type three random characters in and you're likely to see a similar result from Google Books. To be precise: in Google Books, "fast speed" is used about 8x less than "slow speed", its antonym, and about 65x less than "high speed", its synonym. It's rarely used. –  Ed Staub Feb 7 '12 at 16:03

Low speed is licensed by the UP/DOWN metaphor cluster, which, like all metaphors, allows us to symbolically project some feature or percept of the human body (in this case, our built-in gravitational perception) to other judgementally differential binary concepts, like GOOD/BAD, FAST/SLOW, MALE/FEMALE, and the like. E.g:

  • UP is MORE (DOWN is LESS):
    • The stockmarket’s moving up/crashing.
  • UP is HAPPY (DOWN is SAD):
    • He’s depressed. feeling up/down
  • UP is POWERFUL (DOWN is WEAK):
    • upper/lower classes; superior/subordinate
  • UP is ACTIVE (DOWN is PASSIVE - NB: Not grammatical Passive):
    • The computer is up/down again. Rise to the occasion. up for some handball
  • UP is BETTER (DOWN is WORSE):
    • fall down on the midterm; rise/fall in performance; upwardly-mobile
  • UP is ABSTRACT (DOWN is CONCRETE):
    • head in the clouds; feet on the ground; higher mathematics; down-to-earth solution

As for the presenting question, viz. "Is 'low speed' finally proving its merit?" ...
Sorry. Since The Academy isn't in session this year, I can't really answer that question as posed. The presuppositions required to make sense of it are fairly interesting, though.

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There seem to be hints of polarity lurking about here, too, maybe? E.g. short length and shallow depth are all right, while long length and deep depth seem highly marked. –  Mark Beadles Feb 4 '12 at 2:16
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Most of these words have a generic sense and a positively-marked specific sense. So What is the length (not the shortness) of the lot? See Fillmore on Space from his Deixis Lectures. –  John Lawler Feb 4 '12 at 3:33
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@Mark Beadles: Surely long length/deep depth are only odd because they effectively repeat the same word? There's nothing particularly remarkable about extended length or profound depth, for example. No different to large/small size, imho, where size on its own tends to imply "largeness". –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 14:08
    
@FumbleFingers Yes, you may be right about the long length/deep depth cases. –  Mark Beadles Feb 5 '12 at 16:09
    
Although these day "being down for X" as in your handball example, is not unusual. Also "I'm down with that" meaning one agrees. –  Matt Эллен Nov 28 '12 at 10:16

Such constructions are exceedingly common in English. You might want to examine your assumption that this is an "obvious error" or "obviously illogical".

Some people consider "slow speed" an oxymoron - but as is the case with most oxymora, the meaning is crystal clear. In language it's successful communication of meaning that matters, not logical correctness. Are you claiming that you don't understand what is being said, that its meaning is not clear? Or are you saying that redundancy shouldn't be used in language? That's incorrect, languages use redundancy all over place. Or do you just not like the construction? That's certainly your prerogative, you can speak that way if you like, but it's not generally correct at least according to other speakers' evidence.

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+1 for all those other examples of "calibration-type" nouns, which all have standard "units of measure". The default implication for the unmodified noun is always that the measured value is a "higher than average" number. If I say "Look at the size of him!", with no other context, you naturally assume he's exceptionally large, not exceptionally small. –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 13:56

If we are talking about the rate at which something moves or travels, we can say "low/high speed". On the other hand, some senses of "speed" may refer to "velocity", "rapidity, quickness", swiftness", "fastness", where the usage of adjective "slow" is needed. E.g:

Slow speed of light.

I think we can question languages as "sensible". Otherwise, you can not explain the sentence "The sun rises in the east and sets in the west." which is completely illogical as well as unreal.

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Let me try: "slow velocity", "slow rapidity", "slow quickness", "slow swiftness", "slow fastness" -- No can do. –  Kris Jan 24 '12 at 4:32
    
Mustafa, the speed of light is the ultimate limit at which any object can theoretically move. It is a universal constant and the foundation of modern science. Therefore, nothing can be more an oxymoron than 'slow speed of light'. –  Kris Jan 24 '12 at 4:35
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I'm having real difficulty understanding this answer. The point that 'speed' sometimes means 'high speed' but never 'low speed' (if that's what you intend to say) is hardly relevant. Whether language is 'sensible' isn't really a question, let alone on point. And The sun rises in the east and sets in the west is entirely logical, entirely real (in the sense of a meaningful proposition) and true in certain contexts though false in others. Please try again, Mustafa; I think there's the basis of a good answer here, but I don't think this is it. –  TimLymington Feb 2 '12 at 11:38
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@Kris, actually "slow velocity" is not uncommon, though you are correct about the other 4 cases. –  Mark Beadles Feb 5 '12 at 16:08

If you look up this definition of the word speed, you will see that the first meaning attributed to the word is the rate at which someone or something moves or is able to move. So, it is perfectly logical to talk about both slow and fast speed, as the word is neutral in this sense and can be modified with these two adjectives.

I wouldn't call it an error, therefore. Both uses of slow speed and low speed are grammatical.

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So "a slow rate at which someone or something moves" is not illogical? slow/slō/ Adjective: Moving or operating, or designed to do so, only at a low speed. :) –  Kris Jan 23 '12 at 7:46
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@Kris: But rate collocates with both slow and low. –  Irene Jan 23 '12 at 7:56
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@Kris: No, speed isn't a rate of change. If you say that a bike moves at a speed of 10km/hour, where is the change? –  Irene Jan 23 '12 at 13:36
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Speed is a rate of change in position. –  MετάEd Jan 23 '12 at 15:47
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@Irene In plain-speak, moving is changing your place or position. When you continuously keep moving, you are continuously changing position. Displacement is the change of position; speed is the rate of change of position. Likewise, 15% is the rate of growth. After growing 15%, adding a 15% on the new figure is harder, though the rate of growth stays the same. –  Kris Jan 25 '12 at 4:07

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