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In Isaac Asimov's The Last Question, I came across the following sentence:

He stirred his drink slowly with a glass rod, watching the cubes of ice slur clumsily about.

I do understand the meaning of "about" here (meaning roughly "here and there"), but I can't find a meaning of "to slur" that fits in this context.

Does it mean to move? To melt? The meaning that I think fits the most is "To soil; to sully; to contaminate; to disgrace." (because the drink is an alcoholic drink, so ice melting could be diluting the drink) but I'm not convinced.

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I think most native speakers would say it's a "creative" usage1 (perhaps also somewhat "metaphorical"). The allusion is to slurry = a semi-liquid mixture - which may or may not be etymologically related to slush (semi-frozen water+ice), but it's certainly related semantically (and phonetically, along with words like sludge, sloppy, slippery).

Of course, since it's a rather "literary" context, Asimov very likely also intended his readers to (perhaps below the level of conscious awareness) pick up on the secondary allusion to slurred words. Since slurred speech is the archetypal feature of inebriation, we might well suppose that the subject is morosely playing with his drink while out on a bender - so there's a parallel between him getting sloshed = drunk and the ice-cubes in his drink sloshing about = swirling haphazardly (of a liquid).


1 In "normal" contexts, most native speakers would probably never use the "phrasal verb" collocation to slur about. The full OED does include the definition for slur (verb, 2.3) as To slide, slide about, but it was never common, and OED says it's now dialectal. But that wouldn't bother a consummate wordsmith like Asimov.

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    There’s also “slew/slue” in the sense of turning or twisting. – ColleenV parted ways Jul 19 '18 at 14:53
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    There are a lot of "more-or-less related" words in this general area, including stuff like slump, slurp, sluggish, slimey. Mostly they won't be etymologically related, but I think there's a case for saying that even starting with the consonant pair sl- (whether or not it's followed by some specific vowel or not) tends to be more likely with words having meanings in this general area. And the "traction" of each such term "rubs off" on morphologically similar terms, so that meanings tend to "coalesce" around certain forms, over time. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 19 '18 at 15:20
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    I don't understand why you put the British dialectal usage as a note. To me, it is the main and most relevant meaning here: slip or slide. watching the ice cubes slide clumsily about. I think your first paragraph is an over-interpretation...I also don't think one can say this is creative usage related to slurry. Slurry is very dirty stuff. Ice in glasses is usually clean, one would hope. Slurry, in short, is a turn off. – Lambie Jul 19 '18 at 20:56
  • @Lambie: I edited in that note about the dialectal usage after having posted the answer. Asimov was a well-read polymath, so I'm quite prepared to accept that he did actually know this highly obscure "word" (1 of 5 separate main entries for slur). First used with the highly specific meaning to slip (a gambling dice) out of the box so it doesn't turn, this led to the meaning to cheat, but both of those are flagged "obsolete", whereas the one I cited is merely "dialectal". Maybe you knew that sense - but I didn't, and I don't suppose 1 in 1000 of his actual target readership would. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 20 '18 at 12:03
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    @Lambie: I had "post-modernism" rammed down my throat for years at uni, so my default position in contexts like OP's here is to completely ignore anything the writer might have known or intended - in the final analysis, all that matters is what the reader takes from it. And I'm quite convinced almost none of Asimov's readers would recognise his obsolete / dialectal usage. But (consciously or subconsciously) almost all of them would be influenced by the alcohol -> slurred speech + unsteady/sloppy movement allusions, if only because they're so closely related to the semantic context. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 20 '18 at 16:03
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To add on to FumbleFingers' excellent answer.

The full context of the phrase is:

His broad face had lines of weariness in it, and he stirred his drink slowly with a glass rod, watching the cubes of ice slur clumsily about.

The three bold phrases reinforce the idea the character is tired, and possibly not thinking clearly, or perhaps that he is the less intelligent of the two characters in the dialogue. These little details (like Lupov's thinning hair) are not vital to the overall story, but they do help humanize the characters so the reader can immediately connect with them.

More than that -- the weariness, the slow stirring, the ice cubes slowly moving, the thinning hair, the occasional drinking, the eyes closing, etc. -- all are subtle examples of entropy, which is the main point of the story.

In this context the use of slur makes sense. You slur your words as you get tired (or, as FumbleFingers pointed out, drunk). In a similar way the objects in the universe will start to move more slowly as the overall level of energy runs down. Naturally, Asimov was well aware of this when he wrote these metaphors into the story.

On a related note: Even though slur is more commonly used with words and not physical objects, as you read English literature you should recognize that, as in any language, words can have both literal and figurative meaning. For example, suppose I write:

As he drank, his words listed from side to side like a schooner in a wild gale.

The dictionary offers several definitions for list as a verb. Given the context, the most relevant is: (of a ship) lean over to one side. Obviously words aren't ships and can't literally lean in any direction -- but as a figurative image, it should make a kind of sense.

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According to Merriam Webster, slur means slip or slide in BrE, dialectal. –

Here, the ice cubes are sliding about.

Basically,a verb with movement can have about appended to it and become phrasal: move about, slide about, skulk about, hang about etc. This is sometimes BrE.

In AmE, we tend to use around for the same thing: move around, slide around, skulk around hand around.

Although Isaac Asimov was American, he may have favored unusual terms.

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