Me swank, you swoon.
Dear Word Detective: I live 15 miles outside of town, which keeps me up to date on some of the billboards in our neck of the woods. The new ad that has me puzzling is for a local furniture company, running a campaign alleging that the furniture I have is deficient. The ad uses the word “swanky,” and when I saw it I immediately wanted to check your archives. No luck. Does “swanky” have an recent, amusing, pert history? Or is it just another vestigial Germanic/Norse cuss word? — Sally.
Billboards, eh? I remember (I’ve heard stories from the Ancient Ones…) when billboards were considered the Number One Menace blighting the landscape and threatening Our American Way of Life. Seriously. Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady of the US, made it her personal mission in the 1960s to beautify America’s roadside vistas. Editorials were written. Laws were passed. And the campaign worked so well that today, if you drive down any of our major suburban thoroughfares, you’ll be greeted by a parade of giant blinding full-motion LED billboards apparently designed to sell used cars to whoever lives on Mars. Oh, well.
I am intrigued, however, by the fact that the billboard you saw apparently used the word “swanky” in a positive sense, because I don’t remember encountering it in anything but a sarcastic or ironic context in quite a long time. And if someone were to say, “My Uncle took us to a swanky restaurant downtown,” I’d assume that the speaker was signaling that the place was more pretentious than truly sophisticated.
“Swanky,” to me anyway, carries overtones of Dean Martin, Las Vegas and the Rat Pack, and I just this moment realized why that is. Back when I was a kid, a company named Swank produced all sorts of inexpensive but flashy tie clips, cuff links and other men’s accessories. Misguided relatives started giving me Swank tie clips and cuff links when I was about twelve. I know it’s hard to believe, but I have yet to wear cuff links even once in my life. Anyway, apparently Swank, Inc. now owns major brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica. Who knew?
In any case, back at your question, “swank” is a noun, a verb, and an adjective. It first appeared in English in the early 19th century as a verb meaning “to swagger, behave ostentatiously or arrogantly; to act in a superior or pretentious way” (“I met him swanking along the road, ever so genteel,” 1848). The noun “swank,” meaning “ostentatious or pretentious behavior” or simply “pretense,” appeared in the mid-19th century, as did the adjective form “swanky” (“An English producer and a London critic … in the swanky bar of the Excelsior,” 1959). The adjective “swank,” which first appeared in print in 1913, tends to be applied to hotels, restaurants etc. that are genuinely fancy; “swanky” has a bit more of a sarcastic edge to it, and is often applied to both people and places in a pejorative sense meaning “pretentious” or “boastful” (“‘I read that too,’ interrupted Ginger, ‘so you needn’t be so swanky,'” 1929).
The roots of that original verb form of “swank” are uncertain, but it was used as a dialect slang term in central and southeastern England before it was adopted into the common vernacular. There’s some evidence that “to swank,” meaning “to swagger” either literally or metaphorically, is related to the Old High German “swanc,” meaning “to swing,” and/or to the Middle High German “swanken,” meaning “to totter or sway.” If “swanc” is indeed the source, “to swank” could originally have been a reference to the swinging arms and rolling gait of a strutting, swaggering person.
Interestingly, “to swank” also appeared as school slang in Britain in the late 19th century meaning “to work hard; to study diligently” (also known in school slang at the time as “to swot,” which is simply a variant pronunciation of “to sweat”). It’s hard to see what connection exists between this use of “to swank” and “swank” meaning “to swagger or boast,” but perhaps it’s tied to the conspicuous activity and effort needed to attain high academic status.