Land o’ Goshen, look at that swan.
Dear Word Detective: I grew up up with a sweet-tempered grandmother from Arkansas who had a expression she used when she was surprised, resigned, or slightly irritated with whatever I had gotten into. She would say, “All swan!” or “Well, I’ll swan.” I have looked for it, but not with the dogged determination of some. – Carri H.
Boy howdy. For a phrase fading from the popular lexicon and becoming fainter with every passing year, “I swan” (its most common form) certainly does inspire a lot of reader mail. I’ve dealt with this weird phrase several times over the past twenty years. (Twenty years? Yikes.) But the only person I ever met who routinely used the phrase in real life was my mother-in-law in Central Ohio (who died, at age 89, more than a decade ago). As I noted back in 2006, she had a habit of relating family rumors and neighborhood scandals in a breathless monologue invariably ending in a resigned “I swan” spoken in a tone that meant “I don’t know what the world is coming to.” She also used “I swan” as an interjection when reacting to surprising news, as in “I swan, doesn’t that boy know that will go on his permanent record?” She was also fond of the expression “Land sakes” in similar contexts to express astonishment. But if she was feeling dismissive, she’d declare, “That’s just craziness,” and that was the end of that topic.
Of course, long before I had heard an actual person say “I swan” I had read the phrase in novels and heard it in movies (most likely from Marjorie Main in the Ma and Pa Kettle films, a staple of late night TV at one point). I remember as a child being under the impression that the phrase had something to do with actual swans, perhaps in the sense of “swan song,” which I knew to be a figure of speech for “last words” referring to the old legend about dying swans singing a last, sad song. But that was a bit baroque even for a bookish child, so I eventually decided that “I swan” must have some connection to “swoon.” Since the characters in movies I had heard say “I swan” had heavy southern accents, they could have actually been threatening to swoon. Made sense at the time.
But “I swan,” it turns out, has nothing to do with actual swans or, for that matter, with swooning. “I swan” is used as a rough equivalent to “I do declare,” what linguists call an “exclamatory asseveration” of surprise, and it seems to have originated in northern England as a dialectical pronunciation (probably originally “Is’ wan”) of “I shall warrant,” meaning “I declare” or “I swear.” (A related form, “I swan to man,” is a euphemistic form of “I swear to God.”) Although the dialectical pronunciation that produced “I swan” from “I shall warrant” comes from England, “I swan” itself is considered a US phrase because it became so common here after it first appeared in the early 19th century (“I swan if it warn’t enough to make a feller dry to see the hogsheads of rum and molasses,” 1844). At about the same time, the related English dialect phrase “Is’ wan ye” (“I shall warrant you”) produced the US slang verb “swanny,” meaning “to swear or promise” (“‘Capt. Center, didn’t I tell you Van Buren was not the man?’ ‘Yes you did, I swanney’,” 1839). This “swanny,” by the way, is not related in any way to the Swannee River immortalized by Stephen Foster in his song “The Old Folks at Home.”
Speaking of mysterious words born of weird pronunciations, folks in New England may be familiar with the verb “vum,” meaning, as “swan” does, “to swear or promise” (“But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do, With an ‘I dew vum’, or an ‘I tell yeou’,” Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1858). This “vum” arose in the late 18th century as a dialectical pronunciation of the simple word “vow.”