The origins of “slay”

photo of dancing
S Pakhrin/Creative Commons

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Few words have entered our modern lexicon as pervasively as the word “slay,” and like many other slang words, its history is interesting and culturally important.

Slay, in its literal definition, means to “kill (a person or animal) in a violent way.” Or, alternatively, as slang for greatly impressing or amusing someone (as in “you slay me with your jokes”). And while the second definition is somewhat related to the content of this article, it’s not quite right. For the definition I want to discuss, Urban Dictionary somehow manages to make a better source of information.

The first definition on Urban Dictionary was “killed it. succeeded in something amazing.” The second: “literally just slay. it can be what you want it to be xx #slaythedayaway #anotherdayanotherslay.”

While everyone from TikTok stars to teenagers to middle-aged moms use the word “slay” now, its origins come from the Black and Latine LGBTQ+ ballroom culture in the 1970s and ’80s, where it started to be a metaphor for “killing it” with regards to attitude and style. This culture, which emerged in Harlem in response to the racial prejudice faced by Black and brown drag queens in the wider ballroom culture, was the birthplace of many phrases used today, especially within the LGBTQ+ community. They were created at the intersection of oppression and self-expression, and these balls and their found family “houses” provided a refuge for queer Black and brown people who had often been ostracized from their born families.

Ballroom culture and drag, and therefore the word “slay,” entered mainstream culture for the first time with the 1991 documentary “Paris is Burning,” which chronicled NYC’s drag culture and vogueing competitions. The next series to broaden the public’s knowledge of this culture was “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” released in 2009. This show brought drag to people who would otherwise never have been exposed.

Cementing the word “slay” in popular culture was Beyonce with her 2016 song “Formation,” which took “slay” out of the ballroom and into the non-queer Black and feminist spheres. As with any word rooted from within an oppressed group, the use of the word “slay” is nuanced. While many think that the world’s continued exposure to Black and Latine queer culture is a positive, others worry about cultural appropriation, especially within white LGBTQ+ spaces, where it is possible that the heavily racialized aspect of ballroom culture would be ignored.

Some film recommendations for more information about ballroom culture and vogueing include “Paris is Burning,” “The Queen,” “How Do I Look” and “Kiki.” But don’t forget slaying has been with us for decades.

Contact Lauren von Aspen at [email protected].