Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

More gleanings and a few English sw-words

Before I come to the point, a short remark is due. Some of our readers may have noticed that two weeks ago, they did not receive Wednesday’s post. This happened because of a technical problem, but the postSome Gleanings and the Shortest History of Bummers,” is available.

On June 12, my topic was Pudding All over the World.” As a postscript, I mentioned an enigmatic phrase about Larry Ward’s pig lying in lavender. Many thanks for the comments and for the words of encouragement. One of our readers wrote: “Keep going.” I will! Jonathon Green, to whom, among other things, I owe a debt of gratitude for his generous words printed in the blurb of my recent book Origin Uncertain, sent me a bunch of citations with the word lavender, matching the context of my quote to a T. Lavender is, obviously, the right place for reposing, but Larry Ward did not show up in any text. Stephen Goranson, who can usually identify the best-hidden characters and decipher impenetrable acronyms, did not find Larry Ward either. May this gentleman, the owner of an indolent pig, enjoy his peace. I’ll only reiterate my favorite reference: like Rosa Dartle, I asked merely for information.

In the meantime, a reader sent me a query about the origin of the word swig “gulp of drink.” He suggested German saugen “to suck” as a cognate of this otherwise obscure word (obscure only from an etymological point of view). I responded in a private letter that, to my mind, the answer lies elsewhere. Yet Francis A. Wood, an extremely active etymologist of more than a hundred years ago, also connected swig and saugen (saugen is of course related to English suck).

This is what I can say on this matter. Let us look at a few other sw– verbs. In parentheses, the century of the word’s first occurrence in print will be given.

  1. Swab (16) “to mop up, etc.”; several exact cognates in German and Dutch. The initial sense must have been “to sway.”
  2. Swag (18): several senses, but the basic one is again “to sway,” easily recognizable from the verb’s frequentative doublet swagger (a Norwegian cognate is known).
  3. Swank “to show off, etc.” (19): its German cognate schwanken means “to sway” (the origin is said to be unknown, but we find the same verdict in the entries on the previous verbs).
  4. Swop (14), which is remembered mainly or only as meaning “to exchange,” might be sound-imitative.
  5. Swash (16), belonging with clash, dash, crash, and their likes, is certainly sound-imitative.
  6. I would be surprised if sweep (13) did not belong with swap, swash, and other verbs of this type.
  7. For a long time, swive (12) was the main verb for “copulate.” Like our indispensable F-word, it meant “to move on, sweep, move back and forth” (see sway, above!). This sense is still partly recognizable in the related adjective swift.
  8. Sway emerged in text in the sixteenth century, and it looks like a doublet of swag.

Though I know full well that reading such lists will bore anyone but a lexicographer, there is an important point to make, namely, that swig is a member of a large but loose family. Everybody realizes this, but dictionary entries, of necessity, present a series of disjointed words, rather than a mosaic. Therefore, bear with me. I’ll let the verbs swallow, sweep, swim, swindle, swing, swirl, swish, switch, swither “to hesitate,” swoon, swoop, and swoosh, a doublet of swish, stay dormant and come to the point. And the point is that each of the verbs mentioned above has a history, and their history has been traced very well (the main source is of course the OED), but none has an etymology worth mentioning (origin unclear; expressive; similar forms have been recorded elsewhere, and so forth). Even some old and “respectable” verbs with many cognates in Frisian, Dutch, German, and Scandinavian like swim, their reconstructed ancient roots and all, do not break the magic circle of “move quickly (or with a noise)” and occasionally being onomatopoeic.

Let us now look at swig. Its neighbors are swill and the little-known swizzle “to guzzle.” According to one hypothesis, swizzle is a blend, and it does look like a blend of swig and guzzle. Now, suck once had a long vowel in the root and is related to soak and as noted, to German saugen. Perhaps soak and suck are also expressive verbs. It is only obvious that initial sw– may have an expressive value, and I would prefer to treat swig as a “sound gesture.” Our readers may say that I refer to sound imitation and sound symbolism much too often, but this happens because I prefer to discuss unusual words, including slang. And at the dawn of creation, probably all words were “expressive.” Today, bed, pig (in or out of lavender), laugh, and so forth are mere “verbal signs” to us. Things were different “once upon a time.” At the end of this post, I’ll return to the question about how our views on the most common phenomena change over time.

This is a swivel chair. No reference to hips.
Image via Picryl. Public domain.

With regard to sw-words, here, for amusement’s sake, are a few quotes from little-known sources. “… many schoolteachers were once called ‘Miss Swivel Hips’.” A swivel, as we remember, is a coupling device that accounts for the swivel chair. “… the verb swatch [rhyming with catch!] in swatch round, etc., meaning ‘bustle about’ or ‘get busy’ was used by a Kentucky friend of mine in 1929. …swatch is reported from Nebraska as used in the sense of ‘swat’ or ‘switch’.” “…swank in the sense of ‘agile’… is in common use in Scotland. A swank child is one who is tall, well-knit, and not burdened with superfluous weight.” Many such curious examples can also be found in the OED and in dialectal dictionaries.

As promised, I’ll end this swashbuckling adventure through a forest of words of dubious origin with a note on facts and opinions and will quote a ditty from my collection of proverbial words and idioms. At one time, everybody (at least in GB) seems to have known the rhyme: “February fill-dyke / With either black or white; / But if it is white, /the better to like.” The rhyme has existed for over five centuries. Do people still know and recite it? The meaning of the third line (…but if it is white) has attracted a good deal of discussion. February is certainly not the rainiest month of the year in Great Britain.

Image by Benjamin Williams Leader via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Do the following explanations make sense? “A considerable amount of rain may fall upon growing crops and on a thirsty land with but little effect in increasing the volume of water in the neighboring streams; but when February begins, there is but little vegetation, and, moreover, the ground has usually become so saturated that it can absorb no more, and so the rain—although so little—fills the dikes.” Conversely, “Old folks in Somerset still quote this proverb as though it was founded on fact. It is no use to remind them that February’s not really a wet month. They shake their heads and intimate that “the seasons have changed.” Both quotations appeared in 1905. It has also been noted that as a matter of “statistics,” the saying is not true.

Today, we know incomparably more about weather and climate than people knew not only in the remotest past but even a hundred years ago. Is there anything to say about the old proverbial poem?

Featured image by Frederick Warne & Co. via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    This is the first of a two-part article on Lavender. It says that things were “laid up on lavender” because it was an insect- and moth-repellent.


  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    The words “sweep”, “swoop”, “scoop” and others have clear etymologies to the Greek word “σκουπα/skoopa” (Broom). Don’t you think?

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Normally, I would not mention a commercial product, especially one that is an imitation of an earlier version, and also one I haven’t used, but, since we are considering sw- words, some marketing people may have happened upon a successful name: a mop brand called a swiffer.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *