Many people of a certain age have a dim recollection of a Marx brother sticking a match between another brother’s sole and leather upper then, with wiggling eyebrows, lighting the match afire. Interestingly, that is not the origin of the idiomatic phrase hotfoot but rather a literal interpretation of it. The phrase means what its image suggests. As a verb, it means to race or dash around because someone with a hotfoot has trouble going slow.
Anyone who stops to picture someone hotfooting from one place to another knows the hotfooter is in a big hurry, probably in order to get something accomplished or to get ahead. Someone might kick into high gear and hotfoot it around a slow-moving crowd at the airport or down to the subway stop to try to beat the incoming train. To hotfoot generally means to move quickly and with purpose or motivation. While it’s true that some people seem like chronic hotfooters, always in a rush, that’s probably because they believe they need to hurry in order to get things done. Someone with a hotfoot isn’t just being hyperactive, racing from here to there with no purpose in mind other than to burn energy.
Other idioms can suggest this same quality of movement, from going like a bat out of hell to moving at the speed of light. Someone who makes haste while the sun shines is moving quickly in order to get as much done as possible, literally while there’s light to see by and metaphorically while there’s sufficient energy, time, or another commodity to make it happen.
While this expression sounds like it might have originated in the 1920s, along with idioms like 23 skiddoo and loose lips sink ships, the phrase actually dates back more than 700 years and was originally coined in Middle English. Somehow, it’s managed to be expressive enough to retain its sense of purpose and remain an active idiom in the English language.
Common verbs that mean roughly the same thing include bolt, dart, or hurtle. Like this idiom, these verbs also contain a strongly imagistic component. It’s hard to read a statement like “He darted from the doorway” without picturing that particular quick and sharply direct quality of motion.
A somewhat opposite meaning is found in another expression, slow and steady wins the race. In both these cases, however, a race of some sort, meaning a goal, is ultimately won or achieved. On the other hand, someone who trudges along at a turtle’s pace is not moving with motivation or intention, making it a polar opposite expression.