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.