The noun sleigh first came into use around 1700, only back then it was spelled slay and was initially linguistic currency solely among North American English speakers. A few etymologists and lexicographers credit the coining of the word to Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials, as apparently the noun's first recorded use appears in Sewall's writings about his involvement in the witch trials and his early career in Massachusetts jurisprudence. But regardless of who created the word, experts all agree that it is essentially an Anglicized borrowing of the Dutch noun slee, which is a shortened form of slede (meaning, of course, “sled”) that itself evolved from the Middle Dutch sledde. (Incidentally, the English noun sled, which entered the lexicon in the early fourteenth century, is also a descendant of the Middle Dutch sledde, though a more direct one than its cousin sleigh.) The verb sense of sleigh, meaning “to drive or travel in a sleigh,” appeared as early as the 1720s, but the modern spelling of both noun and verb didn't appear until later: the contemporary form of the noun was first recorded in 1768, and it took another century for the spelling of the verb to follow suit.
©2015 Michael R. Gates