Lazing in front of the television, as so many of us do during the holiday season, is a more perilous occupation for lexicographers than for the ordinary run of mortals. You never know when your soul is going to twitch in dismay at the inability of screenwriters to think historically about language.
I was figuratively so affected twice this Christmas, and each time, oddly enough, by the same phrase. In the film Topsy Turvy, Richard D’Oyly Carte remarked to Gilbert and Sullivan after a tense discussion, “I could murder a pork chop”. And a BBC adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles had Sherlock Holmes uttering much the same sentiment to Watson.
Mike Leigh and Allan Cubitt, who wrote the respective scripts, have sadly committed an unfortunate anachronism. This expressive way of saying that one could consume something greedily and with relish has seduced them into using it in contexts some 75 years before its actual first appearance.
Some caution is needed, since this phrase is hard to date — so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary put out a request for help two years ago. Their earliest example then was from Punch magazine in 1986: “I could murder a plate of ham and eggs”, but the editors were rightly sure it was older. I can improve on that a little, since a 1975 edition of the BBC television SF series Dr Who has Sarah Jane Smith saying to the Doctor “Ooh, I could murder a cup of tea”. This is still the earliest documented case on record, though subscribers have clear memories of it from the 1960s, and possibly even earlier, most commonly in the phrase “I could murder a pint”. Many readers, though, will have first come across it in print in Terry Pratchett’s Mort of 1987, in which Death says reflectively, “I could murder a curry”.
It’s new enough that to a lot of people it comes as though freshly minted; certainly it’s too recent for most slang dictionaries. It has been said it evolved from an older American figurative sporting sense of murder, to trounce or soundly defeat another person or team, which appeared in the boxing world soon after the start of the twentieth century. I’m not so sure about a US origin, and the New Oxford Dictionary of English backs up my intuition and search results by suggesting it’s really British.
It might possibly be a truncated form of “I could kill for a ...” or “I could murder for ...” something. Subscribers have suggested it might come from the old practice of describing an empty glass as dead. But really that’s no more than a guess. All very puzzling.