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Make a killing

Posted by Smokey Stover on December 15, 2006

In Reply to: Make a killing posted by ESC on December 15, 2006

: : : I know the meaning of "make a killing" but I have been unable to find the origin of this phrase. When did it first appear in the language and how did it come about? If anyone can answer this question I'd be very grateful, as I need to know this for a short story I am writing. Sorry if someone else has asked this; I didn't see this phrase on any other thread. Thanks!

: : Late 1800s. Originally U.S. To make a profit by gambling, whether at the races, on the stock market, in a casino, etc. From Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green (Wellington House, London, 1998). Page 763.

: This probably has a connection: "To kill has been used as an adverbial phrase meaning to a great degree, since 1831, and as a verb meaning to overwhelm, since around 1910..." From Listening to America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982). Page 293. "To make one's pile" dates from 1850. Page 364.

To answer the question of how did the phrase originate, and why, is a toughie. The OED, as usual, is better on when and what than why. "2. A large profit; a quick and profitable success in business, etc. slang (orig. U.S.).
1888 Texas Siftings 24 Mar. 13/2 Fred Jarvis..getting $15,000 in The Louisiana State Lottery drawing... Many..would like to know something relative to the man who was fortunate enough to 'make a killing'...."

I tend to think of "making a killing" in terms of a slaughter, a word often used figuratively. A couple of examples from the OED: "Like lambs to the slaughter" is used in a variety of contexts not necessarily referring to either actual lambs or actual killing.
Another: "slang (chiefly Sport). A comprehensive or crushing defeat. Also as a mass noun. Cf. MASSACRE n. 1d.
1890 Athens (Ohio) Messenger 17 July 1/1 We did not come out of the last contest very well... It was a slaughter, not only for the head of the ticket, but all along the line. 1938 Boxing 27 Apr. 10/1 The 'slaughter' of Steve Maxie Schmeling...."

'b. A sweeping reduction in the price of goods in order to effect a clearance. 1891 in Cent. Dict.
{Related citation:] 1893 Daily News 27 Jan. 7/4 The bank premises had been written down to what was called in the north '*slaughter prices'--that was to say, not what they would fetch in the market, but as mere bricks and mortar.' (Note the unusual but correct locution, "that was to say.")

I don't mean that "slaughter" and "killing" have the same figurative meaning, but rather show an association that perhaps doesn't bear too close scrutiny. There are other, less dangerous sounding figures of speech with meanings akin to "killing" in this sense, like "cleaning up." He cleaned up in the market today.