The Grammarphobia Blog

Tickled to death

Q: I think of the past participle of “slay” as “slain,” but a recent item on USA Today’s website referred to people who think “they’ve slayed the dragon” by beefing up security. Any comments?

A: The USA Today writer should have used “slain” (unless the dragon was tickled to death).

When “slay” means to kill, the principal parts of the verb are “slay” (present), “slew” (past), and “slain” (past participle), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

But when “slay” is used in the sense of to overwhelm (as with laughter), the dictionary says, “slayed” is “often” used for the past tense and past participle. The past participle is the form of a verb used with “has,” “have,” or “had.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) agrees somewhat. It says “slayed” is “also” used instead of “slew” for the past tense, “especially” when the meaning is “to delight or amuse immensely.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has only one published reference for “slayed” used in the sense of tickled to death: “Well, anyways, my dear, it simply slayed me” (Just Between Us Girls, 1927, by Lloyd Mayer).

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