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Which is the proper word to use to indicate a large amount of something - "slough" or "slew"? Eg:

StackExchange now has a slough of potential new sites in Area51.

English.stackexchange.com has a slew of questions about pronunciation.

Google indicates "a slew of" is more popular than "a slough of", but isn't slew the past tense of slay? It seems that slough, as in a slow moving channel of water, would be a better metaphor. No?

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Good question, and a mimesis of my own mental ramblings about the word. I'm glad Martha so succinctly got a handle on this one. –  Robusto Jan 27 '11 at 21:00

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The phrase is definitely "a slew of". This meaning of the word slew comes from Irish slue "crowd" and has nothing to do with the verb to slay; the fact that the two words are spelled identically is just another accident of language evolution.

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Thanks, Martha. I had always wondered about that, but somehow never got up the energy to track it down. –  Robusto Jan 27 '11 at 20:58
    
I think you are right, but do you have a citation? –  augurar Dec 7 '13 at 22:25
    
@augurar: check the link. –  Marthaª Dec 8 '13 at 15:44
    
@Marthaª The Wiktionary article didn't cite their sources. –  augurar Dec 9 '13 at 4:59
    
merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slew "perhaps from Irish slua army, host, throng, from Old Irish slúag; akin to Lithuanian slaugyti to tend" –  Jistanidiot Jan 22 at 17:19

Fact
Indeed, slew is the past tense of slay. However, slew is also a verb in its own right that means turn!

In American informal usage*, the noun slew, as you rightly indicated, indicates a large number. As in your second example, slew of questions is not an uncommon phrase. Thus, the usage of slough in a similar vein would be incorrect. That slough and slew could both be pronounced in the same way is a possible reason for the confusion of the two in writing.

The noun slough primarily means swamp or bog, and it often has a dreary or negative connotation, e.g. Slough of Despond (John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progess), slough of moral filth, etc. It can also be spelled slew!


Opinion
Frankly, I do not at all think slough would be a better metaphor, as you suggest. Furthermore, I do not think the etymology of the [US informal] noun slew has any relation to that of the verb slay or its past tense.*


Addendum*
Interestingly, Merriam-Webster suggests the origin of the noun slew thus:

perhaps from Irish slua army, host, throng, from Old Irish slúag;


*According to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online

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Certainly a swamp wouldn't be a better metaphor than slew since it apparently does mean a large quantity of something and wouldn't actually be a metaphor at all. However, in the pacific northwest, we know a slough as a slow moving channel of water that was at one time used to transport logs. I was imagining a large amount of something floating down the slough, like "a sloughful of kids". That would be a better metaphor than the past tense of slay. –  gilly3 Jan 27 '11 at 18:05
    
@gilly3: Yes, indeed, slough also means slow-moving channel. I see your point. I was being lazy in not considering all the definitions of slough and simply settled for its most popular meaning! But, as Martha also pointed out, slew (n.) comes from the Old Irish.. –  Jimi Oke Jan 27 '11 at 18:08
    
"Slew of" meaning "many" is also in my (UK) usage. –  Colin Fine Jan 27 '11 at 18:11
    
@Colin Fine: Interesting, especially since it was the Cambridge Dictionary (British) I consulted that indicated that this usage of slew was distinctively American (either in usage or origin, not specified)! –  Jimi Oke Jan 27 '11 at 18:18

protected by Will Hunting Jul 7 '12 at 13:52

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