Killjoy

A very special message from Bob Bummer.

Dear Word Detective:  I can easily guess the reason why the word “killjoy” was created to describe anyone who was spoiling the fun, but I am curious who actually started and popularized it. It sounds like a word that would have been made up directly by an English speaker, but does it come from another language as well? — Karyn.

Thanks for a fun question. Incidentally, did you know that much of the beef, pork and turkey sold in the US contains traces of an animal feed additive called “ractopamine” (aka “Paylean”) that is banned in 100 countries, including the European Union, Taiwan and China because of its potential effects on humans? Have another chili cheeseburger! Sorry, just thinking about the word “killjoy” brings out my Debbie Downer tendencies. But not to worry. That asteroid’s gonna get us long before the iffy pork chops do. The asteroid. The one on the news. Never mind. I have to go buy more gin now.

I’m sure that every language has a word or two synonymous with our “killjoy,” since the urge to ruin someone else’s fun seems to be a very primal human impulse. But “killjoy” itself is purely English, first appearing in print in the late 18th century. “Killjoy” is simply a combination of “kill,” meaning in this case to extinguish, plus “joy,” meaning pleasure, happiness or delight (from the Latin “gaudere,” to rejoice). We use “killjoy” primarily as a noun, to mean a person or thing that undermines happiness, inhibits enjoyment, or throws a pall of gloom over a situation (“Reserve, if apparent, is the real kill-joy of conversation,” 1896). But “killjoy” can also be an adjective applied to the bummer itself (“Halfway though the wedding reception, the cops showed up with a killjoy warrant for the groom’s arrest”).

“Killjoy” seems like a uniquely inspired creation, but it didn’t just pop into existence from a vacuum. English at the time sported a number of “kill” combinations, including “kill-courtesy,” a boorish or loutish person (“This lack-loue, this kil-curtesie,” Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1600) and “kill-pot” (1637) meaning a hard drinker (who “killed” the whole pot). There was also “kill-cow” (1590), a large, terrifyingly powerful bully (who could presumably kill a cow barehanded), his cousin “kill-buck” (1612), and the much more serious “kill-man,” a person who had actually murdered someone. On a brighter note, there was “kill-devil” (1593), defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a recklessly daring fellow,” one who would fight the devil and win. “Kill-devil” was also used, not surprisingly, as a colloquial name for rum, which, in sufficient quantities, might well put you in a “kill-devil” mood. “Kill-devil” is rarely seen these days, but its descendant “dare-devil” or “daredevil” (1794), meaning one who is brave and reckless enough to metaphorically dare the devil, is still popular, especially in the adjectival form (“Daredevil skydiver seeking altitude record,” Google News, 3/16/12).

One word that is not related to this “kill” family is the name of the small bird, a member of the plover species, known as the “killdeer” (or “killdee”). In the summer we see many of these little critters in the open fields near our house, and they’ve always sounded like small seagulls to me, but evidently someone a few centuries ago decided that their calls sound like “Kill deer! Kill deer!”

2 comments on this post.
  1. MarkB:

    The Wright brothers made their first flight near the town of Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, and there is a Kill Devil road in Truro on Cape Cod MA.

  2. Lambert Lorette:

    Another fun article…and excellent quotes:
    (“Reserve, if apparent, is the real kill-joy of conversation,” 1896). [How true that is. Fortunately today, social norms don’t permit that kind of reserve…]
    – With a fun ending:
    “…but evidently someone a few centuries ago decided that their calls sound like “Kill deer! Kill deer!”… I find an outstanding repleteness in your articles, that refreshingly avoids being boring. *****5 stars. Cheers, L

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