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June 29th, 2003

On the cover of today’s Sun-Herald magazine is a story about the Crown Prince of Nepal who slayed his entire family. My immediate reaction was that the subeditor was asleep on the job, but then I thought that perhaps the language had been regularised and I hadn’t noticed. A search on the Fairfax site showed a dozen other instances of slayed, and Google produced 25 000.

I looked for the formerly standard slew and came up with another problem. There were over 700 000 hits, but most of those on the front page used the word as a synonym for large number. Along with raft used in this way, this is something I don’t remember until recently. My guess is that it comes from idiomatic American usage, and has been popularised by journalists looking for short and snappy synonyms. Rather than do any work to check this, I’ll wait for my readers to set me straight (isn’t blogging great!). Just to complicate things further, there’s an engineering use as a verb roughly equivalent to slide around which has gone through the usual processes of adjectivalisation and nominalisation so that it’s now a generic part of speech.

After this, I checked on slain which is unambiguous and, as a past participle, more prone to regularization than the past tense slew. I got 750 000 hits there, suggesting that slayed is still a minority usage.

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  1. June 29th, 2003 at 16:13 | #1


    I blame ãBuffyä for the phenomenon.

    “buffy slayed” gets 269 hits, while the hard-to-ACCENTUATE-the-verb (without oneâs top lip disappearing into oneâs septum) but gramatically correct, “buffy slew” gets a mere 59.

  2. weary old sub
    June 29th, 2003 at 16:17 | #2

    “Slain” is a good word for a sub because it has a pair of quarter-count thins for a total count of 3.5. “Slayed” is for slackers because it’s a 5.25 count.
    “Killed” is dandy if you need to fill white space midway between “slain” and “slayed”, though a halfway decent sub would prefer something more emotionally evocative.

  3. John
    June 29th, 2003 at 16:30 | #3

    I guess offed would let you use one of those fancy ligatures, but this evocative term never quite made it out of slang.

  4. Geoff Honnor
    June 29th, 2003 at 18:21 | #4

    ‘Slew’ verges on King James Version nostalgia in terms of likely readership resonance. ‘Slayed’ on the other hand is at one with showbiz/sporting infotainment metaphor – “we knocked ‘em dead tonight! we slayed ‘em! – and is therefore the term du jour.

  5. June 29th, 2003 at 19:21 | #5

    “Slayed” is outright wrong, and that’s no mere expression of prejudice. Too many exceptions will swamp the stability of language and its use for communication. Your first reaction is in fact likely to be typical – and by the same token, even though the usage is comprehensible it is interfering with communication by introducing a distraction. I have certainly been messed around by the any-noun-can-be-verbed Americanism “to tear” for “to weep”, particularly since there is already a verb “to tear”. This one that you’ve found is of the same nature, though not as bad (their noun “slew” is of the same nature and as bad).

  6. June 29th, 2003 at 19:54 | #6

    i googled ‘adjectivalisation’ and got 13, only seven of which were on different sites..

  7. John
    June 29th, 2003 at 21:01 | #7

    I’m surprised you found it at all, as I just made it up.

  8. June 29th, 2003 at 21:29 | #8

    i googled ‘adjectivalisation’ and got 13

    That’s because it’s actually spelt “adjectivalization”.

  9. Anthony
    June 30th, 2003 at 10:35 | #9

    P.M.Lawrence – “Too many exceptions will swamp the stability of language and its use for communication.”

    Although I’m fond of the form ‘slew’, it’s the exception. Replacing it with ‘slayed’ is simply applying a regular rule.

  10. June 30th, 2003 at 10:51 | #10

    Verbing weirds language.

  11. June 30th, 2003 at 12:16 | #11

    The point about exceptions to rules is that they only survive when widespread. Your reaction is itself the wrong one from the perspective I applied – I myself, like JQ (or indeed Kipling in the line “therefore, we slew him”), am familiar with “slew”. Applying the “regular” rule is causing obscurity by having a conflict with other things (Kipling wouldn’t have got his rhyme with “knew”) without actually clearing up and netting off any other confusion (since we all know “slew”/”slain” already from their being so widespread).

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