slew

A few weeks ago I posted about the following sentence which I spotted in the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

A number of common spelling problems are also discussed briefly. While the emphasis of this work is on usage in writing, a small number of articles is devoted to problems of pronunciation.

(note: “A number … are”, but “a small number … is”.) I emailed the esteemed Geoffrey Pullum about this, and he wrote about it on the Lingua Franca blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education

His most recent article for Lingua Franca is about the south-eastern Indian language Telugu being the fastest-growing language in the USA, mostly because of the high number of people from that area employed in the IT industry, including the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella. He cites an article in Quartz India, and quotes the following sentence:

A slew of Telugu workers in the US has been shot dead in various incidents, from hate crimes to robbery attempts.

He comments:

Just a couple of weeks ago I called this sort of sentence ungrammatical. Slew is a typical number-transparent noun, like lotnumber, and couple  The head noun is slew, and it’s in the singular, but this is one of those cases where the number agreement is determined by the noun in the of-phrase that follows. Standard English would be A slew of Telugu workers in the US have been shot dead in various incidents.

So, what exactly is a slew? According to Dictionary.com, it’s “a large number or quantity” and its origin is “1830–40, Americanism; < Irish sluagh crowd, throng, army, host”. (The Quartz India article doesn’t say how many Telugu workers have been killed, but I guess it’s not “a large number”. (Even a small number is a tragedy.)) So, what people or things can make up a slew? I had to try various search terms on Google Ngram Viewer but finally “slew_NOUN of *_NOUN” gave me the most relevant response (“a slew_NOUN of *_NOUN” and “a slew of *_NOUN” gave me no responses at all):

questions people books others kids things letters men Moab Edom

The first eight results show that slew is most often used with plural countable nouns, not uncountable nouns, as allowed by “a quantity of [uncountable noun]”. But something is wrong with Google’s part-of-speech tagging. In “slew of Moab” and “slew of Edom”, slew is, and can only be, a verb, the past tense of slay, which is Old English from Germanic.

Searching for “slew of Moab” shows Judges 3:29 in the King James Version of the Bible:

And they [the Israelites] slew of Moab at that time about ten thousand men

and “slew of Edom” shows 2 Kings 14:7:

He [Amaziah] slew of Edom in the valley of salt ten thousand

Modern translations give for the first example: “struck down”, “attacked and killed”, “attacked”, “killed”, as well as “they slew of the Moabites”, “They struck of Moab”, “they smote of Moab” and “they smite Moab”, and for the second: “defeated”, “killed”, “struck down”, “executed”, as well as “killed of Edom” and “hath smitten Edom”, some of which are varying degrees of problematic for me, but I’ll leave it there. To comment further, I would need more Hebrew than the almost non-existent I’ve got.

I can’t remember ever saying or writing slew, either as a noun or verb. It/they is/are not (a) word(s) I would naturally use. I also can’t remember the last time I heard or read it. Possibly it’s cropped up (as a verb) in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. As a noun, it sounds colloquial, and as a verb, archaic.

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3 thoughts on “slew

  1. Interesting article! Slew is, as you say, of undisputed Irish origin, though strangely, the original word slua (old spelling sluagh) isn’t normally used with objects or problems. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “Bhí slua fadhbanna againn” (we had a ‘crowd’ of problems), for example, the way it’s so often used in American English. As an Americanism, it has only just started to be used here in Irish English, so to me, it wouldn’t have an archaic feel at all. 🙂

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  2. Thanks. How would slua be used in Gaelic or Irish English then? Along the lines of ‘There was a slew at the party last night’ or ‘We expected a small crowd but got a slew’?.

    My reference to an archaic feel was to the verb, not the noun. The noun feels modern-ish and colloquial to me.

    Google’s default dictionary also has: “slew1 verb 1. turn or slide violently or uncontrollably. 2. (of an electronic device) undergo slewing. noun 1. a violent or uncontrollable sliding movement. mid 18th century (originally in nautical use): of unknown origin.”

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