A good etymology is like finding a four-leaf clover. So often, we stroll through words as if through a field of common trefoil. But sometimes, for reasons I don’t think any of us wholly understand, we chance upon something special hidden in the otherwise ordinary green.
This happened to me for the word slew.
I think my readers are mostly familiar with my writing process here. I listen out for words trending in the ether and see what their etymologies can illuminate about them. Often, they are words in the news. Other times, they follow the rhythm of the calendar – like today, St. Patrick’s Day.
The holiday is a natural occasion to write about some words of Irish origin. Words like leprechaun and shamrock first jump out, of course, but I feel like these words are like hunting for a four-leaf clover. We just never find one when our search is deliberate.
So, I continue through the clover field and stumble upon a word like phony, whose surprisingly Irish etymology I recently plucked. Or boycott, which has Irish roots, too, though in a different manner, as I also discussed not long ago. There are many others: slogan and galore are particularly excellent specimens.
But this time, slew, as in a whole slew of clovers, was my lucky find.
Slew is so plain and everyday a word to be invisible, taken-for-granted. At first blush, it’s just any old shamrock. But, on closer look, it’s really lovely.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this unassuming word back to 1839, citing a bit of dialogue in Daniel Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys: “‘And what is still more, he has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance, which he will have all mounted, and ready to pour hell and thunder down on ‘em in the fort before they dream of it.’”
Slew is a surprisingly recent addition to English, if the OED’s record is any measure. The word derives from the Irish sluagh, which I find in modern Irish as slua, referring to a large group of people: a “crowd” or “multitude.” In Old Irish, the word was slúag or slóg, “army” or “host.” We easily can see how a group of soldiers was extended to a general group of people.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reconstructs a Proto-Indo-European ancestor for slew: *sloug-, a Celtic and Balto-Slavic root for “help” or “service.”
I imagine a young clansman, perhaps ambling along a clover-covered hillside, when an enemy tribe comes across him. Perhaps he calls out for help, and group of his fellow clansmen come to his aid – much like bellowing a sluagh-ghairm, literally a “war-cry” in Irish. Do you recognize that sluagh? It’s the very same sluagh that gives us slew, appearing in this sluagh-ghairm which English eventually rendered as slogan. Irish and Scottish clans once cried out these sluagh-ghairm as calls to battle.
The OED notes slew starts out in colloquial U.S. English. The character speaking in Thompson’s passage cited above indeed has something a colloquial register, as suggested by “‘em” – and perhaps by the very expression “whole slew.” English at some point borrowed the word from the Irish during the 19th century. And while English has a whole slew of words to express the concept of slew, this Irish borrowing found its special, little plot and sprouted – with four leaves in my lexical opinion – in the great clover field of words in the English language.