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I have recently been shown that "Slay" can also mean "Entertain", however this seems rather odd to me.

"You slay me, you really do."

I have two main questions:

  1. In what reasonable context would it make sense to use it this way?
  2. Where and when did this usage originate?
  • 4
    "slay" doesn't in any way mean "entertain". What's happening here is that an idiom is being used that is the same as saying "you kill me" which is a reference to dying laughing. They're basically saying you're so funny that it's killing them from the laughter. I'm not sure where this usage originated, though. – John Clifford Mar 13 '16 at 22:08
  • It's not so much entertain as kill in a figurative hyperbolic sense. You might make them laugh so hard they might die. You might disturb their sensibilities so much they might die, you might insult them (cut them to the quick)- slay in this sense can mean many things- all depends on context. – Jim Mar 13 '16 at 22:08
  • @Jim Interesting point about slay having different meanings depending on context, but at least in the UK I've only ever heard it used to describe how funny someone is; other situations have different idioms which are more prevalent. Do you hear it in other contexts often? – John Clifford Mar 13 '16 at 22:11
  • @JohnClifford- I agree it's mostly a laughter-related thing. But I know I've heard it used when a particularly pointed insult has just been thrown. – Jim Mar 13 '16 at 22:15
  • I can attest that "slay" in the sense of "make me die laughing" has been around since the 60s at least. I would not be surprised if it goes back to the vaudeville era of 100 years ago. – Hot Licks Mar 13 '16 at 22:38
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One of the grim tenets of the stand-up comic's vernacular is that you either kill (reduce the audience to a state of helpless mirth) or die (stand at the microphone surrounded by a crushing silence, your jokes withering and expiring as you bring them out for the cruel audience to inspect). A similar vocabulary rules other forms of popular entertainment, with killing (or slaying or knocking them dead) as one alternative and dying as the other.

Evidence of this worldview appears in Don Wilmeth, The Language of American Popular Entertainment: A Glossary of Argot, Slang, and Terminology (1981):

Die: In vaudeville and most forms of entertainment, when a performer or act failed to win applause or acceptance. see BRODIE ["a show that takes takes a dive or a "bath," named after Steve Brodie, the man who is said to have dived or jumped {unwitnessed} from the Brooklyn Bridge on July 23, 1886"], FLOP ["show-business word for a failure"], and PASS OUT ["act that failed to get applause in vaudeville"].

...

Knock them in the aisles: To overwhelm an audience with one's talent; to entertain an audience with truly hilarious humor. Also used is the phrase "laid 'em in the aisles."

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960) reports instances of slay in a similar entertainment sense going back to 1930 or so:

slay v.t. To make a strongly favorable impression on; to win the affection or approval of, esp. by means of superior charm, humor, etc.; to "kill," esp. to cause a person to lose control of his emotions, usu. through laughter. 1938: "Really, A.P., pardon me, this will slay you." H[eywood Hale] Broun in New Repub[lic], Sept. 21 185/2. 1943: "The boys who slay me are the ones who have set pieces to recite when the answer the phone." H. A[llen] Smith, Putty Knife, 247. Very common since c1930.

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) pushes the origin of slay in this sense back to1593—but unfortunately does not provide support for the Elizabethan dating in the form of instances from that era:

slay v by 1593 To impress someone powerfully, esp to provoke violent and often derisive laughter: [examples (from Broun and Smith) omitted].

The earliest Google Books match that I could find comes from Collier's magazine, volume 78 (1926) [combined snippets]:

"You can start right off actin' for me to-night," I suggests demurely, "by goin' in there with powers of attorney and boxin' this guy McFoul!"

"I can't," says Red. "The referee's McFoul's old man, and he knows me."

No kiddin', Red simply slays me!

This may not seem a particularly strong example, but Google Books finds three more instances of "X slays me" of a similar tenor from 1927, so it seems to be part of a much broader trend. I have not been able to find relevant examples (in the 1972 full-length OED or elsewhere) of the much earlier instances alluded to in Chapman & Kipfer.

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