Violent destruction as excellence

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In the title of yesterday's post about the Apple ad where a giant industrial press compresses all human creativity into an iPad Pro, I started with the weak pun "Tim Cook crushes it" — which led me to think about  idioms where violent destruction conveys high praise, and to wonder about other cases of this metaphor, and the analogies across languages and cultures.

Wiktionary gives sense 4 of crush the gloss "To do impressively well at (sports events; performances; interviews; etc.)", with the example

They had a gig recently at Madison Square—totally crushed it!

The semi-dummy object it is an (apparently?) obligatory complication.  In answering "How did your show go?", "We totally crushed" doesn't work (at least for me) as a substitute for "We totally crushed it".

And experiencers as objects don't work at all — "The show crushed me" does not mean that I found it impressively good.

Crushing as a modifier is similarly negative — both for Wiktionary and for me. "The interview was crushing" means that the experience was devastatingly disheartening, not that it was an impressive success.

As for the history, the OED's entry for crush entirely lacks the "do impressively well" sense, suggesting that it's both American and relatively recent.

On the other hand, the OED gives smashing the gloss "Very good; greatly pleasing; excellent; sensational", with citations going back to this one in 1911:

When you get dressed up a bit, you'll do a smashing business.

This sense of smashing strikes me as British rather than American. Wiktionary says

As a synonym for wonderful, the term first appeared in early 20th-century USA, and possibly derives from the sense of smash used in smash hit and similar terms.

…but modifies the gloss in a way that matches my intuition:

(originally US, now British and Ireland) Wonderful, very good or impressive.

In any case, verbal smash doesn't seem to work like crush — "We totally smashed it" might convey the idea that our show went impressively well, but it seem unidiomatic at best.

The verb kill is somewhat like crush, and also somewhat different, as the Wiktionary entry documents. There's the sense "To amaze, exceed, stun or otherwise incapacitate", which is fine with experiencers as objects —  Wiktionary gives the examples

That night, she was dressed to kill.
That joke always kills me.

And there's also the sense "To succeed with an audience, especially in comedy", which works both with and without an it object:

When comics fail, they "die"; when they succeed, they "kill."
You really killed it at the Comedy Store last night.

Furthermore, killer as a modifier get the sense "Excellent, very good, cool" — but there's no similar development for the agentive forms crusher and smasher, as far as I can tell.

And verbal slay has developed similarly to kill, though I haven't encountered any references to "slayer apps" or "slayer bands".

Meanwhile, there are many other English destruction words that don't seem to have gone very far down this road at all: destroy, liquidate, pulverize, shatter, ravage, …

What about other languages?



  1. Cervantes said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 8:33 am

    In Spanish, at least the regional usages I know, "matarse," to kill yourself, can mean have intense enjoyment.

    I think you can say "slays it" for "kills it" in the same positive sense, also "that joke slays me" works for me.

    Smashing is more British (I almost can't hear it without the accent) but in the U.S. of course bad means formidable, originally African American slang. Also, from Boston (originally Dorchester I think) wicked, an intensifier, but can also be used similarly to bad.

  2. Tim Leonard said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 8:46 am

    Such usage may originate in the context of sport or war and spread from there.

  3. Roscoe said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 9:35 am

    Does this count as a “slayer band”?

  4. Mike Grubb said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 10:12 am

    FWIW: I had always understood (read: assumed) that in sports, the crushing metaphor originated with baseball, in which a batter hitting an over-the-fence home run is said to have "crushed it," hitting the ball so hard it not only left the field but was misshapen from the impact. It subsequently spread from the use in baseball to other examples of excellent performance. Since this is a study with an n value of 1, it is of little objective value.

    On a tangential but possibly related note: In grad school, I wrote a paper involving a phenomenological analysis of English synonyms for "beautiful," and two of the more prevalent metaphors at work were the experience of violence–striking, stunning, ravishing, captivating, etc.–and being the target of magic–enchanting, charming, bewitching, etc. Underlying both was the perception of loss of control by the beholder. If being on the receiving end of violence represents the loss of control, perhaps violent metaphors of success are about asserting control, whether over an opponent or a situation.

  5. Scott Underwood said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 10:12 am

    "Smash" also has recently (early 2000s) gained a meaning of casual sex. In the final episode of She-Hulk, the title character is speaking to the camera (as she often does): "That's what Hulks do, we smash things. Bruce smashes buildings, I smash fourth walls and bad endings — and sometimes Matt Murdock."

  6. Yuval said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 11:20 am

    "Smashing" is primarily Austin Powers-coded for me.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 11:22 am

    "[we] totally crushed it" would have been meaningless to me prior to this thread, but in re « I haven't encountered any references to "slayer apps" », Google certainly has — Slayer Apps (Awesome Apps) .

  8. Y said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 11:39 am

    For slang, Green's Dictionary should be the first place to look, especially for early instances. In it, we have, from 1832:
    In beauty none could them surpass,
    In mansion nor in villa:
    For Sal was quite a killing lass,
    And Bill was quite a killer.

    From 1837: "His Narragansett mar, what is a raal smasher at a trotting."

    From 1853: "Everything that pleases him is ‘crushing, by Jove!’."

    And from 1906, "Poor Timothy Blobbs was a gay little spark / […] / Quite a smash with the girls."

  9. cameron said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 12:01 pm

    alongside "smashing", the Brummie dialect of Birmingham also has "bostin", or bostin' – which is an eye-dialect rendering of what in standard English would be "busting".

    this Brummie usage of "bostin" can be found in the title to the 1986 debut album by the band We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It! – who called their first album Bostin' Steve Austin, where Steve Austin was of course the name of the title character in the American TV show The Six Million Dollar Man.

  10. Charles in Toronto said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 12:20 pm

    Honestly the mental image I get from "crushed it" is of a teen-movie frat boy chugging a can of beer and then crushing the empty can. "Crushed it!"

  11. Sniffnoy said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 12:54 pm

    > "We totally crushed" doesn't work (at least for me)

    Pretty sure I've heard this sort of use.

  12. Kenny Easwaran said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 12:59 pm

    Several of these seem like they might be connected to the idea of a "hit" as a very successful thing, which probably comes from some sort of ball game with hits and misses.

    There also seems to be an important connection with words like "sick" and "wicked" (and earlier, "terrific") that I suspect mean that something is really good in a way that the speaker and hearer assume ordinary society would describe as bad.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 1:07 pm

    @cameron: Thank you for the reference. They've got a nice song. Google Music lists them as just Fuzzbox, but I see from Wikipedia they use both names.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 1:16 pm

    I have fond memories of that WGA … Fuzzbox … AWGUI album, but had never actually focused in on the meaning, dialectical or otherwise, of "Bostin'" other than assuming that it presumably rhymed with "Austin." I am pleased to become better-informed all these years later. To be technical, the U.S. version of the album was merely released under the band's name ("eponymous," to use the vogue/cliche rock-critic jargon of the time), but we were hip enough to know the U.K. album title (apparently also used for Canadian pressings) from the music press.

    The best song title on the album is "Love Is the Slug," but the best track (or at least the one I gave the most late-night college-radio airplay to at the time, which presumably reflects my contemporaneous judgment) on musical rather than onomastic grounds is "Rules and Regulations."

  15. charles antaki said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 2:03 pm


    In any case, verbal smash doesn't seem to work like crush — "We totally smashed it" might convey the idea that our show went impressively well, but it seem(s) unidiomatic at best.

    A familiar usage to me and most Brits I would guess, though perhaps not at High Table. (Also: maybe "utterly" for "totally".)

  16. cameron said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 5:08 pm

    @J.W. Brewer – I agree that "Rules and Regulations" is likely the best Fuzzbox song, with "Love is the Slug" a close 2nd. but I'd add the further note that the 7" single version of R&R is better than the album version.

    There's also a great video for it R&R, which I didn't see until maybe 15 years ago – I doubt MTV ever played it back when it came out

  17. Kaden said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 5:13 pm

    I have heard people just say "We crushed", and I find that just as natural, though I have only heard it from younger people, probably around 10-14

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 10, 2024 @ 10:19 pm

    There's also the adjective "killer", and "to kick ass", hence the adjective "kick-ass".

    I happened to look up "strapping" (lad etc.) recently, and found that etymonline says, '"tall and sturdy, robust," originally applied to women, 1650s, from present participle of strap (v.), apparently in the sense of "to beat with a strap." Compare similar senses in whopping, spanking (1660s), bouncing (1570s), cracking, thumping (1570s), ripping, smashing, and other present-participle adjectives of violent action expressing something large in size or effect.'

    It dates "ripping" meaning "excellent" to 1846 and "cracking" with the same meaning to the 1830s. That brings us to the more modern "shred" and "tear it up".

  19. Peter CS said,

    May 11, 2024 @ 6:47 am

    'Smashing' to my generation (b 1947, Scotland) means very good, or often better than expected. It is, or was, frequently used as a one-word response: 'Yes, I can do that tomorrow', 'Smashing!' It's so much part of the vernacular that I never even think of it as meaning 'destroying'. But I don't think my children use it, thought they would understand it. 'Ripping', as in 'a ripping yarn', is from an earlier generation and more, I think, from the English fee-paying school vocabulary.

  20. Stephen Goranson said,

    May 11, 2024 @ 6:54 am

    Strike in baseball differs from strike in bowling.
    Record setting may be less, um, kinetic, than record breaking.

  21. Peter Taylor said,

    May 11, 2024 @ 9:01 am

    "We totally smashed it" sounds perfectly idiomatic to this Brit, roughly equivalent to the more north American "We hit it out of the park".

    As for other languages, I'm sure I've heard "me mata(s)" (it is/you are killing me) used in Spanish to denote amusement, although my memory doesn't pin down whether the person/people I've heard use it is/are from Spain, South America, or Central America.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    May 11, 2024 @ 9:54 am

    With the same birth-year as Peter CS (above), I recognise "smashing" as he does but would have been totally perplexed by "We totally smashed it" until the advent of this thread. Peter CS, would you have identified "We totally smashed it" as idiomatic <Br.E> ?

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2024 @ 10:07 am

    I believe the BrEng cricket-metaphor equivalent of the AmEng baseball metaphor "to hit it out of the park" is "to be hit/knocked for six." Except the BrEng idiom is from the point of view of the ball rather than that of the batsman/batter, and thus describes a negative experience rather than a positive one.

  24. Keith said,

    May 15, 2024 @ 9:48 am

    I'm British, born in 1968; for me, "smashing" is a word used by people of my parents' generation but perfectly familiar to those of my own.

    On the subject of hitting things, we used the verb "slog" to mean to hit very hard, usually in the context of bat and ball games and the noun "slog" as in "give it good, hard slog; send it over the school roof!" I believe it's a cognate of German "schlagen", Swedish "slag", etc.

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