Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “swell” as in “That cat lover is a swell guy”? — Anne.
Swell guy, indeed. Try “That cat lover is a royal sucker.” In addition to the pack now infesting our house, we now have two or three who regularly show up on our front porch looking for a handout.
The use of “swell” in your example, as an adjective meaning “pleasant, kind, generous,” is actually a fairly recent development of the word and first appeared in print in the 1920s. “Swell” as an interjection meaning something from “excellent” to just “that’s fine” is even more recent, first found in the 1930s (“‘Swell,’ said Mabel, placing the document in her vanity-bag.” P.G. Wodehouse, Luck of the Bodkins, 1935).
Our English word “swell” is, of course, much older, first appearing in Old English, from Germanic roots, as the verb “swellan,” meaning “to grow or make larger.” (Fun fact: the past participle of “swellan” in Old English was “swollen,” which we still use as the past participle of “swell,” as in “swollen ankles.”) In general, our English “swell” has stuck fairly close to the original meaning of “grow larger” as elaborated in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb: “To become larger in bulk, increase in size (by pressure from within, as by absorption of moisture, or of material in the process of growth, by inflation with air or gas, etc.); to become distended or filled out; especially to undergo abnormal or morbid increase of size … as the result of infection or injury.”
As a noun, “swell” has meant, in general, an increase in size, elevation (as a hill), or volume or intensity (as in music). Long rolling waves in the sea are called “swells” (and, if they’re very deep and powerful, as from a big storm, they are known as “groundswells,” a term now used to mean powerful changes in public opinion). Figuratively, “swell” was used in the 18th century to mean “arrogant or pretentious behavior” (“The softness of foppery, the swell of insolence, the liveliness of levity.” 1751), and a bit later “swell” became more positive slang for a stylishly-dressed gentleman. From there “swell” took on the meaning of “a distinguished person; one who is good at something.”
This gave us, in the early 19th century, the use of “swell” as an adjective meaning “stylish, first-rate, distinguished” (“Why are we not to interfere with politics as much as the swell ladies in London?” B. Disraeli, 1845), a sense which was, over time, weakened to the point that “swell” came to mean simply “OK, fine, nice, pleasant” (“We’re eating at the lake; we could have a swell time.” Arthur Miller, 1947).
“Swell” in this diluted sense is now largely a US usage, and, this being the Age of Cynicism, it’s rarely used except in an ironic or sarcastic sense (“You left your wallet at home? Swell.”), which is too bad. There’s an uncomplicated charm to “swell” used sincerely.