Origin of the word
The noun form of slate refers to a type of dark grey stone (1). The verb form of slate, meaning ‘to cover with slates’, was in use during the early part of the 15th century and is a variant on the 14th century word ‘sclatten’. A slater was the name given to a person who ‘makes or lays slates’ and was already in use as a surname from the middle of the 13th century.
The verb was also used to mean ‘to nominate’ around 1804 and later, from 1833, ‘to propose or schedule’. The usage in America to refer to candidates for an election (4) may have had its origins in 1842.
The verb was derived from the noun slate (2) circa 1300-1350 and featured in both the Middle English ‘sclate’ and Middle French ‘esclate’, the French term meaning ‘to splinter, break into pieces’. Pieces of slate (1) were first made into writing tablets in the late 14th century (3).
Other uses were as an adjective from around 1510 and then as a colour in the early part of the 19th century. The phrases ‘put it on the slate’ and ‘clean slate’ from 1856 are likely to have originated from inns that often kept their clients’ accounts chalked up on a slate for reference.
Besides being used for architectural work and landscaping, slate (1) has become popular with artists and sculptors.
“Slate is a wonderfully versatile material to work with. Nature offers an incredible palette with a plethora of colours and textures; from the heather blues to greys, purples and greens.” – The Gardening Website. 2017: James Parker sculpture.
Slates (2) come in a variety of shapes and sizes for building work.
“Over this last winter, we have had several enquiries from people who have had their cars damaged by slates which have fallen from a neighbour’s roof.” – Grigor & Young, solicitors and estate agents. 6th April 2016: Claims for damage caused by falling slates.
Examples of schoolroom slates (3) can be found in many museums and heritage centres in England even today.
“Set in 350 acres of beautiful countryside, people can ride on a tram and steam engine, taste food from a coal-fired range, take a spin on a fairground ride, write on a schoolroom slate, knead bakery dough and join a Home Guard drill.” – VisitEngland Awards for Excellence 2017: Beamish, the living museum of the north.
1. a type of dark grey stone that breaks easily into flat, thin pieces
2. a single, flat piece of slate that is used with others for covering a roof
3. a flat piece of slate that was used in the past for writing on in schools
4. (American) a list of people who are trying to win an election.