English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

For example:

  • She made a killing on the stock market.
  • The comedian killed the audience — they were slain with laughter.

Did this meaning develop slowly over time or did some person or institution invert the definition?

share|improve this question
Related: Evolution of the word hate – user19148 Oct 12 '12 at 20:17
@coleopterist Barrie's answer in the latter gave a bit of insight. I'm curious what the 1844 source is and how the word was used. – Zairja Oct 12 '12 at 20:18
@Carlo_R. I'm not sure it's applicable in this case. If "kill" was meant in an ironic, sarcastic or hyperbolic way, it seems to have lost that sense (at least in my first example). – Zairja Oct 12 '12 at 20:20
OED gives this reference (from 1888): Fred Jarvis..getting $15,000 in The Louisiana State Lottery drawing... Many..would like to know something relative to the man who was fortunate enough to ‘make a killing’. Back then, they put it in quotes, so it must've been a novel use of the expression at that time. – J.R. Oct 12 '12 at 20:24
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Etymonline has an entry for killing:

mid-15c., prp. adjective from kill (v.). Meaning "very funny" is from 1844. As a noun, "large profit," 1886, American English slang.

While its usage to mean "very funny" is partly covered in another question, its usage via idioms like to make a killing to indicate a "large profit" dates back to 1886 (as noted above). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms has the following to say about make a killing:

make a killing Enjoy a large and quick profit, as in They made a killing in real estate. This expression alludes to a hunter's success. [Slang; late 1800s]

share|improve this answer
Another context where I've heard it used positively is where it's used to mean "did very well at," (or, more informally, "nailed") as in, "I killed that exam," or "I killed that interview." It seems the "hunter's success" origin would carry over into those contexts as well. – J.R. Oct 12 '12 at 20:33
I'm also reminded of execute, where it seems the opposite occurred. It originally meant "to follow out" (and still does) but later got a more macabre meaning. – Zairja Oct 12 '12 at 20:40

The Online Etymology dictionary states:

killing (adj.) mid-15c., prp. adjective from kill (v.). Meaning "very funny" is from 1844. As a noun, "large profit," 1886, American English slang.

Since the basic meaning of killing is "an act of causing death" I don't think either are surprising slang derivations.

You can either "kill people with laughter" (stop it, you're killing me!) or vanquish your foes in the financial realm (I'm making a killing in the stock market.)

share|improve this answer

The Dictionary of American Slang Third Edition (1995) says that kill was used to mean "To make an audience helpless with laughter" by 1856. Comedy has a number of violent expressions associated with it, involving metaphorical injury to the audience—"knock them in the aisles," "knock them dead," and "fracture," for example.

I have read that many stand-up comedians, in particular, have mixed feelings about the audience they face, much as a lion tamer might in facing a cage full of lions, and that viewing a successful performance as an exercise in dominance is common. But any performer must have at least some uneasiness at the awareness that the audience's reaction is never certain in advance. And winning their approval is in some sense a matter of defeating their potential disapproval, which threatens the performer.

I doubt that anyone goes to a performance thinking "I sure hope I get killed." But I have heard approving spectators say of favored performers, "They killed tonight," as though the play (or the playlist), and not the audience, were the beautiful victim.

share|improve this answer

"Kill" has the connotations of to "totally dominate" or "destroy" something.

If you have "killed" someone in the usual sense of the word, they are totally helpless, can't do anything to you, because they are dead.

But you can figuratively "kill" (destroy) someone, by driving them into uncontrollable laughter. Or "kill" a stock market by making a large amount (relative to your investment).

This is an application of "reverse psychology," where a word that is originally bad, can be treated as "very good." Other examples are "awesome" or "bestial."

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.