(S)laughter is the Best Medicine

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Slay: slaughter :: ____: laughter?

It’s shit like this that made me love being a teacher of English to multilingual speakers; I felt dispositionally and linguistically well-suited to absorb their incredulity, because really: WTF.

This started, as everything does nowadays, because of Beyoncé’s “Formation.” “Slay” as an alternate verb for “perform magnificently” has been around a while, but now even the least down have heard it, and will begin to use it in just-slightly-the-wrong ways, as I probably do. Anyway, because it has a rosy/kick-ass connotation nowadays, I was startled to realize afresh its connection to “slaughter,” which hasn’t taken on that shine.

And THEN I thought: WAIT. Why on God’d green earth would we pronounce “laughter” and “slaughter” differently? What is the source of this–did laugh acquire an [f], or did slaugh/slay lose one?

As you might expect, because isn’t it always the way: both, and neither!

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A few strange delights in 2: “personification of murder” (so rather than “I slay” Bey could sing “I am slaughter“), and in 3…having a major sale? (I got excited and wondered if “slash” as in “we’re slashing prices!!!” also comes from “slay,” but it does not).

But in terms of (s)laughing matters…UGH! Do you see this origin?! It doesn’t so much start as “slay” or “slaugh” (and never even mind an [f]), as it starts as slatr (meat) and then gets influenced by words about making meat that have the same root as “slay” but are not “slay.” So then, of course it doesn’t quite follow the laugh/laughter pattern, because it started out with the “-ter” and got backformed to look like other words in English.

Except that the Online Etymology Dictionary (OeD) differs a bit; see bolded section:

slaughter (n.) Look up slaughter at Dictionary.comc. 1300, “killing of a cattle or sheep for food, killing of a person,” from a Scandinavian *slahtr, akin to Old Norse slatr “a butchering, butcher meat,” slatra“to slaughter,” slattr “a mowing” from Proto-Germanic *slukhtis, related to Old Norse sla “to strike” (see slay (v.)) + formative suffix (as in laugh/laughter). Meaning “killing of a large number of persons in battle” is attested from mid-14c. Old English had slieht “stroke, slaughter, murder, death; animals for slaughter;” as in sliehtswyn “pig for killing.”

So…this seems to me to say “actually, ‘sla– has had to do with striking and hurting for a nice long time, and at some point, Old Norse (or similar) put a formative affix on there [i.e., -tr], and then it meant ‘butchery.’ And then, the word looked all kindsa ways for a bit before eventually getting semi-standardized as ‘slaughter.'” So, fine. No answers here about WT[f], but fine.

Both those entries were for nouns; verb “slaughter” is formed from the noun.

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Again with the price slashing! I do wonder if this is a figurative use once slaughter already meant slaughter, or if it came in via “slay.”

Which brings us back to the Bey-ginning:

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Well: that’s a lot, isn’t it? My favorites here are in 3, “to undo (one) spiritually, etc” (I like everything about this, esp the “etc”, because what?) and in 2, what I interpret as a critical acknowledgement of European American colonial fuckery on the Plains: “the buffaloes were slain wantonly.”

So, again, fine. But then, oh, we have the OeD:

Meaning “overwhelm with delight” (mid-14c.) preserves one of the wide range of meanings the word once had, including, in Old English, “stamp (coins); forge (weapons); throw, cast; pitch (a tent), to sting (of a snake); to dash, rush, come quickly; play (the harp); gain by conquest.”

OVERWHELM WITH DELIGHT! From mid-14c! It’s too good. Never mind that it seems to have meant…almost any damn thing in Old English. It meant then what Beyoncé does now (and actually: Beyoncé does most of the things on that list. I have no proof she plays the harp but I’m certain she does if she feels like it.) Also, now is the time to look back at the doodle!

I do not recall enough about Old and Middle English pronunciation to know whether all this has answered questions about losing and gaining [f]s, but I do know enough to just look up “laugh,” and look what I found buried in the OeD entry:

Originally with a “hard” -gh- sound, as in Scottish “loch”; the spelling remained after the pronunciation shifted to “-f.”

Oh, of course! Because Germanic languages use “g” or “gh” that way–that nice velar fricative. And this is one of many instances, not just in English  of a velar-to-labial shift (meaning, you make a “gh” with your back palate, and an “f’ with your lip, and words sometimes started one way and ended up the other.) This doesn’t quite explain why this shifted in “laugh”(ter) but not “slaugh(ter). That has to do with the intersection of Great Vowel Shift and the straight-up loss of the velar fricative in English (it had to go somewhere, and it went different places depending on the vowels it was near), and involves more intense phonological detail than I think any of us are prepared for around here. “Slaughter” just didn’t get an “f” and everyone can just deal.

So let’s say it together: I AM SLAUGHTER, and I am out of f’s to give


2 thoughts on “(S)laughter is the Best Medicine

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