28

I've run across the phrase "at a 2:40 rate" in mid-19th Century sources. The context suggests that it means "at high speed," but I'd like to know the derivation. If it means a mile in 2 minutes, 40 seconds, then that's 23 miles per hour, a very respectable speed for a light horse-drawn carriage. If it's a 4.5-furlong race track, then it's about 43 mph which is a great speed for a thoroughbred racehorse. Does anyone know for sure?

For example:

This lady has never let an occasion slip on which she could abuse and villify the Southern Confederacy. A short time since she was on board a steamer, going up from New Orleans and was, as usual, wagging her tongue at a 2:40 rate against our section. — The Daily Dispatch: July 29, 1861

12
  • 1
    There seem to be dozens of written instances, in a fairly wide variety of contexts. For example, The young shoots of strong growing varieties, when growing at a 2:40 rate, have a feeble hold on the old wood... Jul 28, 2023 at 18:11
  • chatgpt says it's to do with the rate of cutting down and replanting trees, but I dunno about that Jul 28, 2023 at 18:18
  • two of the earliest examples on google books are "makes his " two forty " before a neighbor's sulky" (horses); and "who bet on horse races and the elections and loved fast driving and to talk about 'such a splendid rig' and their 'two forty' and all that" which might point to a distance. Is this a "Star Wars parsecs" thing? One is c 1855, the other 1860.
    – Yorik
    Jul 28, 2023 at 18:24
  • 1
    @HotLicks There was also "going like sixty" in that era.
    – Robusto
    Jul 29, 2023 at 1:17
  • 1
    The last verse of the song "Jingle Bells", from the 1850s, refers to a fast horse: "Just get a bobtailed bay / Two forty as his speed / Hitch him to an open sleigh / And crack! you'll take the lead." Jul 31, 2023 at 13:47

2 Answers 2

19

From the OED:

two-forty noun
U.S. colloquial.

An expression for a high speed (originally spec. at the rate of a mile in 2 min. 40 sec., formerly a ‘record’ pace for trotting).*

1855   I had introduced..a team of ‘two-forty’ reindeers. M. M. Thompson, Doesticks ii. 20
1889   Two-forty. To go at two forty, or at two forty pace, is to proceed at a high rate of speed. The allusion is to the record pace at trotting matches, at one time a mile in two minutes forty seconds being considered very good. J. S. Farmer, Americanisms
1896  Now, get a two forty move on you, nags! G. Huntington in Chicago Advance 26 March 450/3

Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

The Americanisms entry for two-forty (see 1889 example above) ends with the sentence: Now the speed attained is much higher.

The earliest print usage Google Books turns up is in 1844:

. . . and my father says I may go with him to the next trotting match. You know that bay colt father calls mine !—why I've got him so that he can trot a mile in two forty !
Temperance Dialogues, for Juvenile Meetings, Pic-nics, Fourth of July, &c, American Temperance Union (pub), 1844


Trotting refers to the pace of “trotters” — horses that are “bred to race at a fast trot instead of a gallop, while pulling a driver in a lightweight cart called a sulky.” (American Museum of Natural History — Bred For Speed)

Currier & Ives illustration of horse Maud S. and driver The Queen of the Turf MAUD S., Driven by W.W. Bair By Harold, dam Miss Russell, by Pilor, Jr. Record 2:08 3/4, Currier & Ives, D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, 1880 (image from Springfield Museums)

 

1
  • 3
    Thanks to Tinfoil Hat for the great response. The key is "trotters" -- thoroughbreds gallop at around 45 mph. Cheers --
    – Seth Masia
    Jul 29, 2023 at 20:38
20

Your interpretation is right: '2:40' does indeed refer to the amount of time it took the horse to go a mile. What's important is that these are not cart-pulling horses, these are racehorses.

Merriam-Webster tells us:

two-forty:
1 : a speed of a mile in two minutes and forty seconds
ran like two-forty
2 : high speed

Etymology:
so called from its having once been a trotting record

That trotting record appears to have been the record set by a popular horse named 'Top Gallant'. From Wallace's Monthly:

Top Gallant (foaled about 1806) was perhaps the most popular horse of his day. He does not appear to have won much nor often, yet, like some politicians, he preserved his popularity for all of that, and his time, 2:40 (although beaten the same year by the Treadwell mare), was the slang phrase for speed for twenty years later.

A slightly different explanation is offered in the 1867 book Black and White:

Two minutes and forty seconds is the least time in which a match horse is expected to do his mile, and a regular 2'40' is a slang phrase expressive of anything fast' all through the States.

Here, for instance, is the 1906 New York Times article announcing the horse 'Sweet Marie' setting a new world-record mile for a mare:

enter image description here

It's clear from reading this that the '2:03¾' here is the amount of time it took for her to do the mile. It appears to have been a metric for measuring horse-speed; the 1900 Clark Horse Review is full of mentions of horses going at 2:10, 2:48, 2:90, etc.

Here's another example from The Breeder's Gazette:

Honest Charley could trot his half mile in 1:20 or at a 2:40 rate, and won more than one race at county fairs.

And from 1848, in the newspaper Religious Telescope

Justin Huntly McCarthy's new book reminds one of a horse race at a county fair where the steeds are called back about a dozen times; but when he gets started he goes at a 2:20 rate with growing excitement and compelling interest until he rounds up under the wire.


But a second meaning seems to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century. Here is, from 1856, a sort of travelogue published in the New-York Dispatch:

Don't know what to do exactly, so go to sleep, and dream that the devil is dragging me along at 2:40 rate, and his imps are sticking pins in me.

And an 1862 letter, describing rapid snowfall:

Don’t talk to us about “mild southern climates,” and the “sunny south!” The snow is six inches deep this morning, and falling at a 2:40 rate still. We are to have a sleigh-ride this afternoon. The boys all have fires in their tents and are comfortable.


I assume that, as with the human mile-time, the mile-time for horses has slowly been whittled down; the 2:40 that was so impressive in Top Gallant's time was nothing to write about in the following decades. That would perhaps account for some of the discrepancies noted by Weather Vane in the comments below.

10
  • So is a 2/40 rate only average or steady and not fast? Honest Charley could trot his half mile in 1:20 or at a 2:40 rate... and you quoted race times that were quite a lot faster. Was the river boat not making good speed? And what about the Confederacy angle? The OP's link shows the remark was taken as an insult. Jul 28, 2023 at 19:28
  • ... was "2:40" taken to mean pedestrian? Jul 28, 2023 at 19:41
  • 4
    Trotters, including Sweet Marie, are harness racers — they pull carts. Jul 28, 2023 at 22:41
  • 1
    2:10, 2:40 and 2:48 all seem very reasonable, but 2:90 puzzles me… surely that would be 3:20! Jul 29, 2023 at 9:45
  • 1
    Thanks to Heartspring for the thorough and enlightening answer. Great info.
    – Seth Masia
    Jul 29, 2023 at 20:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.