In the book This Country of Ours, I ran into the idiom slew them to a man several times. For example:

He was soon undeceived. For he was led away among the bushes, and his hands were tied behind his back. As his followers came over they, too, were bound and led away. Then as trumpets blew and drums beat the Spaniards fell upon their helpless prisoners and slew them to a man.

I know what slay means. But what does to a man mean?

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    – user230
    Sep 13, 2014 at 6:15
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    Never heard of before. From context I would guess it means "to the last man", or in other words, "kill them all". However, it's just a guess.
    – learner
    Sep 13, 2014 at 6:16
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    Note that you cannot slay 'somebody' (this is, one individual person) 'to a man'. At the very least, slaying 'to a man' requires more than one person, and probably means a medium to large sized group.
    – Sydney
    Sep 13, 2014 at 11:53

2 Answers 2


In general it means everybody, without exception

In this case They slew them to a man is They killed everybody, without exception.

Note that you cannot, as in the question title, "slay somebody to a man" -- you can only "do something to a group of people to a man".

OED1 says

Indicating a limit or point attained in degree or amount, or in division or analysis, and thus expressing degree of completeness or exactitude: As far as; to the point of; down to (an ultimate element or item) to the last man; {to a man} (including every man, without exception).

And provides some examples

  • 1618 Bolton Florus (1636) 149 They might have had the killing of all his Army to a man.
  • 1867 Froude Short Stud., Erasm. & Luther ii. 99 The bishops were hostile to a man.

It's not all nasty though, to a man is often used when everyone agrees perhaps in a sentence like this.

After a long meeting they agreed, to a man, to go back to work.

Depending on what your are reading, you might also find every man Jack [of them] as an idiom that means the same thing: every single one [of them] (OED1 again)

  • 1840 Dickens Barn. Rudge xxxix, ‘Every one of 'em,’ replied Dennis, ‘Every man Jack’.
  • 1859 G. W. Dasent Pop. Tales Norse 347 Every man Jack of them are so sound asleep.

Apparently--as per @snailplane's link--this would mean "kill them all". But I've never heard such a phrase in American english.

There is an advertising campaign for Maxwell's House coffee that says "good to the last drop". That is to say that when you drink the coffee, all of it is good... you drink it all, and even when you're down to that last bit which may be cold or maybe you'd think there was some kind of sediment that settled in it... that is not so; the coffee was "good to the last drop". So to becomes tied to this idea of "up to completion".

Then again, it might be ambiguous about whether it was completed or it stopped before the named moment. ("It's pretty much all good, up until that last drop...which is YUCKY!") As a native speaker, if I were to make an isolate guess of what this (certainly uncommon phrasing) of "to a man" could mean, I might intuit it meant: "they killed everyone--up to a single person who was spared--and sent back to tell people about the massacre".

But from data here, I'd assume it's actually "kill them all". I'd have to see the context.


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