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shameless pleading





I swan

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.”

39 comments to I swan

  • Angela

    I’m from Kentucky and my mom says, “well, I swanny” to express surprise at some unbelievable gossip or as a term of frustration. For example, trying to thread a needle over and over without success would bring out an “I swanny” from her. I’m 46 y/o and she has said this all my life. My grandmother used to say, “Well, law” with the word law drawn out to express surprise and disbelief. The grandkids get a big kick out of hearing these phrases! My neighbor from Virginia will say, “that girl is as ill as a copperhead”, meaning the girl is in a really mean mood!

  • larry knowles

    “I swunny” was my Mother’s favorite expression for surprise or mild shock. She was born in 1913 in then rural Henry Co. GA, now merely a suburban area of Atlanta. Being a live-at-home old bachelor, I must have heard her say it, twenty thousand times, until her death in 2004.

  • Katherine

    Thank you so much! I have been searching for the origin of swan for forty years. If was and still is common in my mothers family in Tennessee. We always knew it meant to declare but did not know the origin. When grandma was surprised she said,”I swam”. When grandma was shocked and without an answer to a problem she would say,”I swanny mercy”.

  • Drew Snider

    I’d been wondering about this most of my life and finally decided to look it up and here it is-thanks!

  • My Dad was from Tennessee and he always said, “I swear and I swan.”

    My Mom, from Oklahoma said, “I swan,” or “I swanny.”

  • Emgee

    When expressing (especially feign) surprise, my father will often say, “I swanny and do vow!” My family has lived in Georgia for six generations.

  • Ed Gombert

    I first heard the character of Fibber in the radio show Fibber Magee and Molly and wondered where it came from. Thanks, I can finally wonder about something else.

  • My grandma used to say: “I be swan!” whenever she was surprised by something.

  • Paula

    My mom from Oklahoma used to say I’ll swan or I’ll swan to goodness.

  • Dennis Williams

    This was a very common expression in western Kentucky when I was a kid growing up years ago. I was born in 1944 and my dad’s mother who was born in 1900 used to say it all the time.

  • Lois Vance

    I swan na goodness! Pon my honor! Forever more!

  • JH

    My grandmother, born in 1914 in East Texas (from Geaorgia grandparents) said “I swan” or “I’ll swanny” in the context mentioned here. She had no idea of what it meant or how she came to use it – it was just a natural expression of surprise.

    How about we bring this expression back to the mainstream…I’m going to say it at least twice a week as situations warrant. ;-)

  • CK

    Check in
    Barbara Kingsolver’s
    “Pigs in Heaven”:
    character Taylor Greer’s mom Alice uses “I’ll swan” when Annawake Fourkiller predicts uncannily what Alice will say to claim that Taylor’s adopted child should stay with Taylor instead of returning to the Cheerokee Nation…
    My vote goes for “Damn it” or “I can’t believe it” and bringing it back to the mainstream ;-)

  • GT

    There is an 80 something man at the nursing home I visit who uses the phrase, “Well, I swan”. When he says it it sounds to my ear like a sanitized version of “Well, I swear.”

    I had to look this up today to see if I was right and what it’s origins might be.

    You can hear Bob Hope use the phrase on his radio show during the time it was sponsored by Swan Soap (1948-1950).

  • MD okie

    My mom was from Oklahoma, (born 1920.) Her and her sisters would say, ‘I swan’ because they thought if they said, ‘I SWEAR’ someone would think they were cursing. Bless their hearts.

  • Ben K.

    The first time I was exposed to this phrase was in a Deadpool comic in the early ’90s. I spent years assuming it was a typo until college when I had a Southern-born roommate who used it frequently. He had no idea about its origin, so I am glad I finally solved that mystery by visiting your page.

  • Stephen

    My grandmother, who lived in Southern Illinois, not far from Kentucky, would use the expression ” I swan” It was used to express surprise or maybe consternation. We grew up in Michigan and whenever we went to see her every other year she would invariably say “Well, I swan, you kids are getting so big!” Lots of folks in that little old town would use the phrase. I never heard it Michigan at all. Grandma died in 1982 at age 77,and it seems that expression is close to dead too.

  • Douglas Wallace

    It was considered against the teachings of the Bible to “swear”, so this is a “minced oath”, the old preachers made this very clear. My grandma and my older aunts would never say “I swear”, as that was forbidden, but to say “I swan” is similar to saying “Jeepers” instead of “Jesus”, and would get them out of going to hell.

  • Amy

    My grandma, who is 89, often says, “I’ll swan to pete!” I was reminded of this while listening to a Stephen King short story today. Thought I would look it up. She lives in Southern Illinois, which isn’t too far from Western Kentucky. She also often says someone is “faunching and raring” if that person is having a fit.

  • Richard

    My uncle from Oklahoma said “Well, I swam” with the most humorous nasal western drawl

  • MaryAnn hekgeson

    My mom always said,”I’ll swan” when hearing something new or unusual to her. We are from Arkansas. it makes sense to me that the expression also means ,”I’ll swear”‘ which many southern also say.

  • Grace

    My mother was born in the Missouri Ozarks and I grew up hearing “I swan” and “I’ll swan to my time”, usually when she was perturbed at me. So glad to hear it again.

  • Sam Pace

    I’m 50 years old and was raised in south Mississippi and I still use the word “swunny”. But it has certainly been lost with the younger generations.

  • Jeremy

    My grandmother was born in 1915 in Burlington, NC. Whenever she was exasperated by some unpleasant revelation, she would say, “Well, I swunny!” She is the only person I ever heard use “swunny”, probably because we all migrated to Florida when I was a toddler. I’ve never heard anyone use the word in Florida, and I’ve lived all over the state, from Ft. Lauderdale to St. George Island.

  • babbette

    My grandmother went with “Well, I swan”. She told me a lady should not only never swear, but should never even say the word ‘swear’. I told her that if I wasn’t allowed to say ‘gee’ because it meant ‘Jesus’, that she shouldn’t say ‘swan’ because it meant ‘swear’.

    I started saying ‘Well, I duck.” to thumb my nose at the over restrictive limits on language in my family and over the decades it’s become a habit, scattering confusion worldwide.

  • tina

    My grandma on my dads side (southern Missouri) used to say, “Well I’ll swan” a lot, glad to see others from the midwest heard it growing up….awwww, the memories <3

  • LT

    It was also referenced in the 1973 movie, Paper Moon, spoken by Ryan O’Neal in the scene where he and Tatum are leaving Madeline Kahn at the hotel where he caught her with another man.

  • Donna

    My Grandmother (born in 1899) use to say “I’ll swan my soul.”

  • Ginger

    My grandmother from southern Indiana would say “I swan or I swanny to goodness. She was born around 1916, I think.

  • Bob A

    I recall a cartoon seen in the early 1950s. It had a character, an old farmer with a goatee, whose name was “I. Swan”. I assumed it was a takeoff on the old rural expression, though I don’t recall the phrase in actual use in upstate NY at the time. Cartoon looked to be from late 1930s or early 1940s.

  • Tutu

    My great grandmother, born around 1885, often said ‘Well, I’ll swan!’ I never heard her oldest daughter, born 1901, use the phrase. Truly a sociological peek into the history of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri.

  • MWahl

    My grandmother from Southern Kentucky used to say ‘I swan to my Johnny’. I always wondered where this came from!

  • J Radford

    I think it means, I swear. When I was growing up in Western Tennessee, my mother and her friends used to say it when gossiping when they thought the kids weren’t listening. But at my parent’s parties, late in the evening when my siblings and I were thought to be asleep, my Dad and his army buddies would start swapping stories, amd they often finished a tale, or exclaimed over one by saying, “I swanny to God”. That’s how I figured out swan meant swear.

  • leslie

    My Mother, born in 1911 in southwest Georgia, used “Well, I swan” all of her life.

  • Cj Ryan

    Because I was home sick a lot as a kid, I would sit & listen to my West Texas mother talk with her friends on the phone. To her, “I’ll swan” or “I’ll swanny” seemed to mean “I declare!” But ya gotta drawl it out…”I’ll swannn!” And she had a friend who used to say, “My stars!” Or, “Well, my stars!” The friend would also say, “Great day in the mornin’!” And years later, I figured out all on my own that “Landa Goshen” came from “Atlantic Ocean,” which is obviously purdy dang big! Lol!

  • Caryl Sheffield

    My mother was the only person I ever heard say that. She would say what sounded like “I swandit” usually out of exasperation. She was born in Georgia in 1920 but was raised from a young age in eastern Ohio. I’m so appreciative to find this thread. The phrase has been a mystery to me all my life until now. I’m 69 years old.

  • Bev.

    I’m also from Oklahoma, b. 1956.My mother, b. 1920, and most females from that era and earlier, used “I swan”. While working on my genealogy, I found that all my ancestors originally came from GA,NC,SC,AL,TN,LA,TX,OK (all southern states). Prior to that, Britain, England, Ireland.So the locality and origin fits.”I swan, I surely do miss hearing dialect from my ancestors”.Thanks.

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