I first heard the word slake in a song many years ago. It was a spiritual song in which it made the point that God can slake one’s thirst for salvation. It appeared to me that this was a medieval term, not commonly used in contemporary American English.
Over the years, however, I have had the opportunity to come across the word in a variety of places, from newspaper articles and magazine articles to literature of varying levels of seriousness. I am told that the word appears in music not infrequently.
Slake is a word that wordsmiths trace to the year 1400 or before. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary lists the word (at least some of the definitions of it) as archaic. But its common use in today’s language makes me believe that it is more common than the dictionary believes. It may be that people use the word knowing that it has an archaic flavor to it.
Slake is usually used, it would seem, in the sense of quencing a thirst. That can be in a common manner, as drinking water to overcome thirst after excercise or on a hot day. There is something pleasing about the idea of a cold drink after playing a round of golf on a hot July day. I can see the sentence in a story: “The golfers gathered on the patio of the club house with gin and tonics to slake the thirst that had been building over the last nine holes.” How much more romantic is that, rather than saying, “The golfers gulped down gin and tonics to beat the thirst of the game”?
But the word has a meaning that is more literary as well. One can said to “slake” the thirst for wealth, or knowledge, or romance. It has little or nothing to do with physical thirst. It is more a case of recognizing a vacuum in one’s desires and the hope to fill it with whatever it takes to overcome the longing. “Peter was determined to slake the thirst for love, no matter the cost.”
Pavlo Tychina was a Soviet poet of the 20th century whose passion for things Soviet brought about poetry which glorified the revolution. In one of his poems, The Feeling of One Family, he uses the word slake in a traditional, but romantic manner.
For language is the spark igniting
An all-illuminating fire;
It is the taste of fresh spring water,
Full of a strange and magic power.
Drink deep and often! Slake your thirst
With draughts of water clear and cool,
And say, without constraint and freely:
All languages are beautiful!
It may be a Soviet-era poem with political overtones, but I like the sentiment.
And, again, James Fenimore Cooper, early American novelist, uses the term slake in his historic novel, The Deerslayer:
“She’s in the forest–hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain–in the dew on the open grass–the clouds that float about in the blue heavens–the birds that sing in the woods–the sweet springs where I slake my thirst–and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God’s Providence!”
(That was just to prove to you that the word has American usage as well!)
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