Mortal power

The 8/11/22 Rhymes With Orange, exploiting an ambiguity in the noun killer as the modifier N1 in N1 + N2 compounds, in this case in killer abs (literal ‘abs that are killers, abs that kill’ vs. figurative ‘abs that are killer / remarkable’):

(#1) In the worlds of advertisements featuring beautiful people, the health and fitness literature, and soft porn, figurative killer abs are commonplace; abs that kill, however, have (so far as I know) never once appeared on a police blotter

Wider topic: the figurative modifiers of mortal power — premodifying killer (killer abs, a killer app), postmodifying of death (the cruise of death, referring to a penetrating sexual facial expression).

Male body parts and sexual connections between men plus a ton of linguistic expressions in their social contexts, what more could I ask for?

The abs of killer abs. First, the word. From NOAD:

noun absinformal the abdominal muscles.

Your abdominal muscles are also called your abdominals — the C(ount) noun abdominal is a beheading of the phrase abdominal muscle, and abdominals is its plural form — and they’re also called your abs — a clipping of abdominals.

Then, the thing. From Wikipedia:

(#2) From A Tighter U Gym & Wellness Center’s “8 Steps to Getting Killer Six Pack Abs”, a posting of 1/6/17

The rectus abdominis muscle, (Latin: straight abdominal) … is a paired straight muscle. There are two parallel muscles, separated by a midline band of connective tissue

… Bands of connective tissue traverse the rectus abdominis, separating it into distinct muscle bellies. In the abdomens of people with low body fat, these muscle bellies can be viewed externally. They can appear in sets of as few as two to as many as twelve, although, six is the most common.

The killer of killer abs. Overview: the noun killer has a literal sense (‘a person or thing that kills’) and also an assortment of figurative senses, referring to people or things that stand out or are remarkable in some way; these nouns killer are all available as modifier N1 in N1 + N2 compound nouns; meanwhile there is also (for many speakers) an adjective killer that has developed from figurative uses of the noun (roughly like the way an adjective fun has developed from the noun fun: that is so fun ‘that is lots of fun’, that is so killer ‘that is really amazing’).

[Warnings: on the whole, dictionaries are not very good at distinguishing syntactic functions (like Head and Modifier) and syntactic categories (like Adjective and Noun), so the labels in their entries are often misleading; and then, there is very considerable variation in actual people’s usage (I recognize and understand the adjectives fun and killer, but don’t use either of them myself); and finally, in many actual occurrences of killer, you can’t tell (even from the context) what analysis the speaker or writer had in mind on that occasion (but we all cope anyway).]

I’ll slide into killer, specifically, through the figurative modifiers of mortal power, starting with my 7/30/11 posting “X of death, killer X”:

I wrote, a propos of a postcard of a young man with an extraordinarily developed musculature, that he had “abs [abdominal muscles] of death”, and then thought of the template X of death, with the postmodifier of death conveying ‘overwhelming, magnificent’, much like the premodifier killer in expressions like killer abs — both of them hyperbolically metaphorical allusions to the effects of X on people.

The 2011 posting here used an 1978 Ortleb & Fiala cartoon in which “an innocent passerby is stopped dead in his tracks by Al “the-cruise-of-death” Jones”. Having reposted this several times, I’ll turn instead to a Cruise of Death photo that my friend John Dorrance posted yesterday on Facebook:

(#3) JD writes: Here’s an old photo of me, just in case I’ve never eye-fucked you. [AZ: I don’t recall having heard the verb eye-fuck before, but I admire its back-formed beauty]

Now back to the 2011 posting.

Meanwhile, there are piles of X of death cites for various body parts [abs, glutes, pecs, ass, tits, dick]

… Tons of hits for killer X:  killer abskiller gluteskiller ass, etc., and of course killer apps, killer deal, etc. This sense of killer even made it into OED2, but back then it had not spread to so many body-parts and to terms from technology and business and then to more general slang use (as in a killer idea / concept).

… All the [OED] cites are relatively recent and from the world of popular music: 1979 killer set, 1983 killer album, 1986 killer track.

… The hyperbolic extension of kill that lies behind of death and killer is given in OED2’s subentry under kill:

To overwhelm (a person) by a strong impression on the mind, as of admiration, astonishment, alarm, grief, etc.: to impress with irresistible force. Also, to convulse (someone) with laughter; to excite, thrill, delight. [cites from the early 18th century on]

Current dictionaries. From NOAD on the modifier killer (which it treats as an adjective):

1 denoting a person or thing that kills: a killer virus. 2 informal [a] extremely difficult or unpleasant: I woke up with a killer hangover. [b] mainly US very impressive or effective; excellent:  … a killer physique.

Then from GDoS on the noun killer:

… 2 someone or something exceptional (both positive and negative) (a) (orig. US) an outstanding, formidable person, often attractive, occas. menacing … (b) of an object, something exceptional of its type … (c) (orig. US) something very difficult to manage … (d) of performers / performances, the very best … 6 as a term of address [cites from 1997 and 2001 books by American author Eddie Little, a chronicler of “coming of age in the underbelly of society and heroin addiction” (Wikipedia)]

(I’ll come back to the address term killer in a while.)

GDoS treats the (orig. US) modifier killer ‘terrific, amazing, effective’ as an adjective; the cites, from 1971 on, are at first from the music industry (1971 killer hit, 1984 [Prince’s] killer act), and a later one is as well (1999 killer album). Then we see radiation of the usage to all sorts of domains: 1991 killer omelets (I have the impression that food is an especially welcoming domain for the usage), 2000 killer fact, 2004 killer smile.

And then in the OED2 draft additions from May 2001, radiation to the technology domain:

killer application  n. Computing an application which is particularly significant or useful; a feature, function, or application of a new technology or product which is presented as virtually indispensable or much superior to rival products; also in extended use. [1st cite 1987 from PC Week]

killer app [(with the clipping app for application) 1st cite 1988 from PC Week]

At some point, the usage radiated to bodyparts as well, abs especially. I don’t have a firm handle on its spread through this domain. For some examples, see the Killer Appendix below.

killer X with literal killer. Though I’ve been focusing gimlet-like on figurative killer  X, just to remind you that there literal occurrences (‘an X that kills things, that causes things to die’) too. There are even, entertainingly, killer penguins. Ok, in a fictional world, but if you visit that world, steer clear of Eudyptes omnicidus.

From theZoo Tycoon Wiki Fandom site on the killer penguin (lightly edited):

The killer penguin (Eudyptes omnicidus) is a very large fictional bird.

(#4) Thumbnail of the creature

It is an extremely large member of the penguin genus Eudyptes, identifiable by the presence of yellow crests of feathers above their eyes. Superficially, the killer penguin resembles a very large rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome), but has glowing yellow eyes and sharp teeth. As its name implies, the killer penguin is a savage predator and will hunt and kill any other creature it comes across, often purely for fun.

The adjective killer. One example from NOAD that really is an adjective, not a bare C noun killer in predicative function: the soundtrack is killer.

And then two cites from the net with adverbial so:

Why the Shocking Twist in ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ Is so Killer (link)

The Chevy Squarebody is so killer even the US Military wanted them!! (link)

The address term killer. The Eddie Little examples in GDoS mentioned above:

1997 Come on, killer[…] Let’s roll.

2001 Finish this [food], killer, get some meat back on your bones.

My impression is that this address term is mostly AmE and working-class, primarily used by men to men, to express affectionate respect (for the addressee’s power), though of course any such term can be wielded sarcastically or ironically.

Which brings me to the remarkable Jerry Lee Lewis. From Wikipedia:

Jerry Lee Lewis (born September 29, 1935) is an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. Nicknamed the Killer, he has been described as “rock n’ roll’s first great wild man and one of the most influential pianists of the 20th century.

And then from Guardian interview with the man:

… your nickname? “Ach, that,” he says. “I didn’t mean nothing bad by that.” How did it come about? “I was leaving high school one afternoon with my friend, and he or me said, ‘I’m going home now, I’ll meet you at the pool hall.’ And he or me said, ‘OK, I’ll see you there, killer.’ And that’s how it got started.”

… He shakes my hand as he leaves for his summer hideaway just outside Memphis, and hobbles to the Rolls-Royce Corniche. Lewis bends himself into the driver’s seat and reverses down that endless drive. “See ya later, Killer,” he says.

JLL is in fact known for using killer to address other men.

buster, cousin of killer. Another AmE male address term in violence-based –er agentive territory (neither of them previously treated on this blog). From NOAD (which tries to put the most frequent use first in an entry):

noun buster: informal 1 mainly North American used as a mildly disrespectful or humorous form of address, especially to a man or boy: your parents’ decisions affect you, like it or not, buster. 2 [a] a person or thing that breaks, destroys, or overpowers something: [in combination]: the drug’s reputation as a flu-buster… [AZ: hence, Buster used as nickname conveying ‘tough guy’]

GDoS has 6 entries for a noun buster, with a great many senses. buster-1 sense 1 has uses conveying “size, energy or (exceptional) character”. Then:

buster-3 sense 1: a person, often an old and cantankerous one [from mid-19th c. on in BrE] … ; a general term of (affectionate) address [AmE cites from 20th and 21st c. are notably challenging, distinguishing buster from killer]

OED3 (March 2012) on the noun buster has a range of senses, especially the two in GDoS:

… 2. a. A person who or thing which is impressive or remarkable, esp. in being more than typically large, loud, etc. [1st cite 1833] b. A form of address to (or occasionally a term for) a person, esp. a man, variously expressing affection, familiarity, disrespect, or hostility. Formerly frequently in old buster. [old buster cites 1838-1919; newer, AmE usage, cites 1948-2001]

Finally, there’s the AmE nickname Buster, very widely used, especially for sports figures (though I suspect it’s wandered fairly far from its original zone of busting things with a bat, stick, fists, heads, or feet). Three notable Busters:

actor Buster Crabbe (Clarence Linden Crabbe II), actor Buster Keaton (Joseph Frank Keaton), SF Giants ball-player Buster Posey (Gerald Dempsey Posey III)

The Killer Appendix. With all the examples of killer X in my postings on this blog, whether in quotations from others or in writing by my own hand. Lots of abs, lots of food.

— in my 7/14/10 posting “Dolls and action figures”:
All his muscles are big, really big, and he has killer abs.

— in my 12/16/11 posting “More memories”:
the Essex Deli, source of blintzes, pastrami sandwiches, killer pickles, and more

— in my 7/3/13 posting “Music and words”:
the Think Denk posting, “Schubert’s killer abs”

— in my 7/12/15 posting “Waterside trio”:
Killer abs and pecs

— in my 11/9/15 posting “PUMP! Boys and Trojans”:
pumped up a / Killer package for him

— in my 12/12/15 posting “Dev Hynes”:
[The blood orange] makes a killer water ice or gelato.

— in my 4/17/16 posting “Another winged man”:
sporting new tattoos, a buffer bod, and some killer (and no doubt erotically painful) body piercings

— in my 5/6/16 posting “More tiki!”:
tiki lounges (where you can get killer cocktails and Polynesian/Chinese food)

— in my 6/18/16 posting “At the Head of the Wolf”:
Money, sex, and anthropophagy, plus killer abs and electric underwear.

— in my 7/4/16 posting “Fireworks, hot dogs, and, yes, gun sales”:
Although we boiled our hot dogs, we think Hebrew National would make a killer grilled version.

— in my 7/19/18 posting “Get your cruise face on”:
street cruising, with its apotheotic facial expression, the Killer Cruise, aka the Cruise of Death

— in my 11/27/19 posting “At the onomatomania dinette”:
and some absolutely killer waffles, the food is everything you’d want in a brunch spot

— in my 6/7/20 posting “Pride faces”:
[about photo of pornstar Justin Matthews:] From early in his career, when he had romantic hair …; the killer abs are long-standing

— in my 9/23/20 posting “Feeling more one-headed”:
he could wield a killer cruise face when he was looking for casual hookups with men (mostly in gyms)

— in my 7/29/22 posting “Many a pickle packs a pucker”:
Stokra (totally killer pickled okra)


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