‘You Kill’ Might Soon Be a Nice Thing to Say

A rare new addition to an odd class of words

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Cody Ko of the Tiny Meat Gang podcast (YouTube / Wikimedia Commons)

Last episode killed. I mean, it’s good to be back in the studio. I listened to it. It just felt like a different energy entirely.

The usage of the verb “kill” with a positive connotation isn’t anything new. If you’ve read The Catcher in the Rye, you may recall Holden Caulfield’s proclivity for the phrase “That killed me” — he uses it a total of thirteen times throughout the novel, sometimes to mean “That upset me” or “That struck me”, but in other instances with a very different intention, as in this snippet:

‘The mummies? What’re they?’ I asked the one kid.

‘You know. The mummies — them dead guys. That get buried in them toons and all.’

Toons. That killed me. He meant tombs.

This sense — synonymous with “amuse”, “delight” — dates back to the mid-19th century, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, and has shown tremendous staying power into the modern day. We regularly hear about comedians killing a set, musicians killing a show, even office workers killing their presentations. The way we construct sentences with “kill” is relatively fluid — a joke might kill an audience (conjuring up an image of comedy club-goers convulsing with laughter till they die), or a student might kill an exam (in other words, show that paper who’s boss). Then there are the lucky few of us who are just killing it at life.

“This kills”

But Cody Ko’s usage of the word, I argue, is something of a breakthrough. Why? Well, let’s turn our attention to the exhilarating subject of grammar. In all the other examples given above, “kill” is a transitive verb, meaning that it has an object, something upon which the act of killing is committed. This reflects the literal meaning of the word, of course — there can’t be a murder without a victim. Contrast this with an intransitive verb like “die”, which can’t take an object; you can’t say “I died my dog”, unless you mean you tinted his fur blue or something (and you also don’t know how to spell).

In the above quotation, however, Cody Ko uses “kill” intransitively. This isn’t innovative in and of itself — it’s become so common to hear of a comic “killing it onstage” that many English speakers now omit the last part of the expression altogether. “Nathan Brannon is a comedian who kills every time I see him”, reads an article in the magazine Portland Mercury. But here, the author means that Brannon “kills” in a specific context — he does well every time he performs his routine. Cody Ko, on the other hand, uses the word differently: he doesn’t mean that the last episode was received favourably by listeners. Notice how he clarifies his statement with “It’s good to be back in the studio.” He just means that he feels positively about it. It was a good episode. It rocked.

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The phrase “You rock!” was born out of the popularity of rock ’n’ roll (vale arellano / Unsplash)

“Rocked” — there’s another verb with an interesting metaphorical meaning, and a relatively new one, too. “This table rocks” is uttered in Elizabeth Bowen’s 1949 novel The Heat of the Day, but is immediately followed by the reply, “Sorry, I’m probably leaning on it.” It wasn’t until after artists like Chuck Berry and The Beatles changed the sound of mainstream music that the verb was used to denote the cool (although it’s been linked to sexual pleasure since the 1920s — see the Jazz-Age song title “My Man Rocks Me” by Trixie Smith). Other verbs that behave similarly include “rule”, “stink”, “blow”, and, perhaps the king of these words, “suck”, which originated in the 1970s as an ellipsis of pre-established expressions involving fellatio (the OED reports that the first printed usage of the word was in the sentence “Polaroid sucks!”). This type of verb abounds in French — some examples you may know are “Ça va” (“I’m fine” or “It’s okay”, literally “It goes”) and “Ça plane pour moi”, the title of the Plastic Bertrand hit (“Everything’s going well for me”, literally “It glides for me”) — but not so much in English, which is why linguistic developments of this variety are so exciting. Seth Stevenson of Slate speculates that the derogatory verbs in this category outnumber the complimentary ones, of which he cites only two, “rocks” and “rules”. I tend to agree, though I think we could add “bangs” to that list, which is typically used to refer to a piece of music, but can be applied to everything from outfits to sandwiches, at least in the linguistic playground that is Twitter.

Nonetheless, “kills” would be a welcome addition to the lexicon, not only for its positive meaning but also because it allows for an economy of language that we don’t always have at our disposal in English. Disapproving parents and teachers have been trying to eradicate the expression “This sucks!” from schoolchildren’s vocabulary for decades, but it’s easy to see why they have yet to succeed — can you think of any complete sentence that’s so hyperbolic and yet so brief? Whether or not this usage of “kill” will take off remains to be seen, but I was able to find an instance from a 2013 episode of Bates Motel (“You get your diorama finished?” […] “Yeah, I got it done, and it actually kills.”) that proves Cody Ko’s utterance was not an isolated incident. If it catches on, it’ll certainly lead to some fun new phrases. We might soon be able to tell someone “You kill!” and expect to be met with a broad smile, or walk up to a group of smokers and say “Cigarettes kill, you know”, only to elicit a “Hell yeah, they do.”

Written by

Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literary Studies in Belgium. clarech.carrd.co

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