slay (verb) /sleɪ/ LISTEN
To slay means ‘to kill violently.’ These days, it is quite a literary term, but it is also used, especially in US English, as a synonym for murder, particularly in newspaper reports. Figuratively, it means ‘to destroy or extinguish.’ Informally, slay is used to mean ‘to impress strongly or to overwhelm, especially with something funny or humorous.’
- The king slew his enemies.
- The man was slain with a single shot.
- Catherine is working with a therapist to try to slay her fears.
- The comedian was slaying her audience.
In pop culture
You can listen to The Red Hot Chili Peppers singing their song “Throw Away Your Television” here:
Listen for the lyric ‘slay the plague.’
Did you know?
A slay is also an instrument on a loom, used by the weaver to strike the weft and tighten the weave. Its name comes from the original Old English sense of the verb slay. It is more commonly called a reed these days, and it looks like a comb.
Commonly confused with
Don’t confuse slay with “sleigh.” They sound the same, but a sleigh is a vehicle on runners used for transporting people over snow.
Slay dates back to before the year 900. The Old English verb slēan, which later became the Middle English verb sleen or slayn (both pronounced similarly), meant ‘to smite, strike or beat’ as well as ‘to kill with a weapon’ or ‘to slaughter.’ It can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic verb slahan, from the root slog- (to hit), and originated in the Proto-Indo-European root slak– (to strike). It is related to the Old Norse and Old Frisian slā, the Danish slaa, the Middle Dutch slaen, the Dutch slaan, the Old High German slahan, the German schlagen and the Gothic slahan (all meaning ‘to strike’), as well as the Middle Irish slactha (struck) and slacc (sword). The English only kept part of the original meaning (to kill), but other languages, such as German (schlagen), kept the ‘strike, beat’ sense. The meaning ‘to impress or overwhelm’ was originally figurative, and dates back to the mid-14th century. In addition to this one, slay had many different meanings that are now lost, including ‘to stamp’ (said of coins), ‘to forge’ (a weapon), ‘to pitch’ (a tent), ‘to throw or cast an object,’ ‘to sting’ (said of a snake), ‘to come quickly,’ ‘to play a harp’ and ‘to gain by conquest.’