On Swag and Other Heritage Words in English

History is a burial ground for lexicographical trends. But words are often prone to strange resurrections. I was reminded of this while thumbing through The Cassel Dictionary of Slang by Jonathan Green. Measuring in at more than 1300 pages, this curbstone of a book is a survey of informal language in English, from the Renaissance to the present day. Among the book’s pleasures are the odd instances of continuity between the historical past and contemporary popular culture. Take for instance,

Swag n. [late 18C+] (Und.) a thief’s booty (esp. linen and clothes as opposed to jewels or plate) or a peddler’s wares

How wonderfully odd that this word has the same essential meaning today as it when it was spoken by  thieves and mountebanks in the days of Hume, Burke and Rousseau. A populist might advance this fact as evidence for the robustness of contemporary culture, but the argument cuts both ways. Some words never recover from being in vogue. Swag may end up being as quaint as vaticide, perpotation, smellfeast or anything else in the multitude of lexical novelties captured in Johnson’s Dictionary.

Words can also have strange afterlife, as time and chance attach meanings unimaginable to the original coiners. Another instance of thieves cant oddly prefigures the digitalized capitalism of our own time.

McGoogle n. [1930s] (US Und.) the big boss. [joc. use of supposed proper name]

Aren’t bloggers, if they wish to have traffic on their sites, subordinates of McGoogle? Historical irony alone ought to be enough return the word to common usage.

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2 responses to “On Swag and Other Heritage Words in English

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