Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Serial-Killing vs. Serially Killing

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2005

A few posts back, I wrote the following sentence: “And declaring that one’s 20s are when one should commence one’s serial killing is downright heinous!” I had to rewrite that sentence a couple of times, because at first I kept wanting to say:

…when one should start serial killing…

I kept rephrasing because on the one hand I didn’t like using the chunk serial-kill as a verb that way, but on the other hand the phrasing one should start killing serially or one should start serially killing didn’t sound quite right either. In turning serial-kill into a verb, I realized I was stumbling over the same kind of reanalysis-plus-backformation I’ve written about before. Specifically, I was starting out with the compound noun serial killer (or gerund serial killing), with the following structure:

[serial [kill er] ]

Next came the reanalysis:

[ [serial kill] er ]

And the final analogy for the true backformation part of the process:

kill : [kill]er :: ? : [[serial kill]er]

If this process was going on in my head, I figured it might be going on in other people’s heads, too. So I did some searches to find out if serial-kill as a verb was out there, and how it compared to serially kill or kill serially.

The phrase I looked for was serial killed, since killed is unambiguously a verbal form (either past tense or passive participle), while in serial kill, serial kills, and serial killing, the form of kill was ambiguous between a verb and a noun. I got about 886 Google hits for the phrase. A lot of them seemed to be spellchecker-induced errors, with (I’m guessing) serial killes replaced by serial killed. But there were a number of clear cases of backformed serial-kill, such as these:

… and now the two of you are sitting pretty with a couple of unsuspecting well-behaved drifters sitting silently in the backseat just begging to be serial killed … (link)

The people that are serial killed now are usually guilty. (link)

TheJock, commenting on my away message – which when I go out with someone always instructs the reader to avenge my death should I dissapear or get serial killed … (link)

In addition to the above passive participial forms, I got a few past-tense ones:

Marlena, a big character from back in the day, had apparently gone crazy and serial killed a bunch of other main characters. (link)

Lee Wuornos being a prostitute who serial-killed about seven of her johns back in the 80s and … (link)

Hey, do you like the “Six Degrees of Rigor Mortis” game where you try to figure out how many people Bill & Hillary Clinton serial-killed? (link)

I got about 361 Google hits for serially killed, both participial and finite:

The following eMail we received reports the death of three perfectly good Zip drives being serially killed by a single killer cartridge: (link)

The British and worldwide societal structure decided to demonize Dennis, after it was revealed that he had serially killed numerous young men. (link)

For the first time in US history, a woman stands accused of having serially killed six adult male motorists, (link)

Interestingly, serially killed was often used in a strictly compositional sense, referring to killings that took place sequentially, not done by a serial killer. Most of these were from lab reports, as in:

The mice were then serially killed at the scheduled times to examine the development of hepatocellular carcinoma… (link)

But not all of them were. Here is a sentence talking about Osama bin Laden, certainly a killer, but not anyone’s idea of a serial killer:

we’re dealing with an individual who has led a military effort against the United States for ten years and has serially killed a significant … (link)

I didn’t find any of these usages for serial-killed, though of course I can’t say they’re not out there.

So using the backformed serial-killed seems to carry the extra meaning that a killing was not just one in a series, but that it was done by a serial killer. I can think of another reason that someone might use the backformed serial-killed rather than serially killed. Compare these sentences:

?He serially killed Kim.
He serial-killed Kim.
?Kim was serially killed.
Kim was serial-killed.

Serially killed sounds better when you’re talking about more than one victim. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a series of things when there’s only one member in the list. But what if you’re talking about a single victim (such as Kim) who was done in by a serial killer? Serial-killed seems to capture that meaning.

2 Responses to “Serial-Killing vs. Serially Killing”

  1. Anonymous said

    I wonder if it’s noteworthy that your attepted use of “serial killing” as a verb was intransitive, while the attestations from Google that you give are transitive.

    Even with the serial-kill as a verb, it seems funny to me to say that X serial-killed Y because it sort of sounds like Y got killed multiple times.


  2. anon said

    “And declaring that one’s 20s are when one should commence one’s serial killing is downright heinous!” might be meaningfully rewritten as “And declaring that one’s 20s are when one should commence one’s *series of killings* / *career as a serial killer* is downright heinous!” Just a thought . . .

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