March 12, 1999
Many people, and with increasing frequency in the last month or two, have written:
Can you talk about the word "swan" or "swanny"? It's found in exclamations like "Well, I swanny, you really surprised me!"
I've been getting consistent queries about these words since I started the page, but for some reason I've gotten quite a number very recently. If there's an explanation for why it has suddenly come to broad attention, I'd love to know what it is.
Both swan and swanny mean 'to swear' or 'to declare', and are used only in exclamations in the first person singular. Both are Americanisms; swan is first recorded in the late eighteenth century, swanny in the early nineteenth.
There are two theories of the origin of these terms. The most obvious is that they are euphemistic variants of swear. This parallels the very frequent use of euphemisms for almost any term related to religious profanity or oaths--doggone or dadgum (or many other variants) for God damn, from roughly the same period; zounds for God's wounds from centuries earlier, etc. ad infinitum.
The other theory is that the terms are reduced forms of I s'wan or I s'wan ye, northern English dialectal forms of I shall warrant (you), more or less equivalent to 'I swear'. The wan pronunciation of warrant, and the use of warrant in exclamations, are widely attested in northern English dialects, and this could explain both why the swan(ny) forms are chiefly dialectal in America, and why the swanny form exists at all (the ye in the longer phrase going to a -y ending is probably more likely than a derivation of swanny from swear).
The editors of the Dictionary of American Regional English were kind enough to share their raw data with me (the volume with S will probably not be published for a number of years) about the distribution of these terms in America. Swan is found widely around the country and is not notably limited in terms of speakers' ages or educational backgrounds. Swanny is almost exclusively found in the South and South Midlands. It is also heavily biased towards rural speakers and towards less educated speakers. Surprisingly, to me and to DARE's editors, neither term was considered old-fashioned during the late 1960s, when most of the DARE field research was completed.
The words have nothing to do with swan 'large long-necked white bird' or with the Suwannee (often Swanee) river in Georgia and Florida.
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