Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Dictionary.com:

swell
1. to grow in bulk, as by the absorption of moisture or the processes of growth.

The other verb meanings and the noun meanings all tend toward the same underlying concept of this first definition.

But as an adjective, the meaning of the word becomes completely different:

26. (of things) stylish; elegant: a swell hotel.
27. (of persons) fashionably dressed or socially prominent.
28. first-rate; fine: a swell party.

Also, one of the noun meanings is dandy, which doesn't to my mind tie in very well to "growing in bulk".

Whence came this disconnect?

share|improve this question
1  
etymonline.com/… seems to account for the stylish/swank meanings, but not the good/excellent ones –  JeffSahol Jun 5 '12 at 15:19
    
Looks like a pretty trivial extension of meaning to me. I think all such usages are at least "dated", but apart from a swell = a dandy, man-about-town, which is positively archaic, it generally works exactly the same as great. –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 '12 at 15:19
    
Or possibly the etymology went swell = a dandy to swell = adj. for stuff a dandy would have to swell = stylish, elegant to swell = good. –  Peter Shor Jun 5 '12 at 16:17
add comment

5 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Swell was first a verb, then a noun, then an adjective, and lastly an adverb. Ultimately, the adverb of 1856 comes from the adjective of 1810, which comes from the noun senses from the late 1700s, which came from noun senses from the early 1600s. All noun senses ultimately came from the verb swell, whose original form in Old English was swellan. It can be found back in Beowulf.

The use of swell adj. to mean fashionably dressed or first-rate derives from an attributive use of the OED’s sense 9 of swell n.. The slightly earlier sense 8 seems to have led up to this. Here are noun senses 8 and 9, with subsenses:

  • 8 a. Of a feeling, emotion, etc. (cf. swell v.7). Now rare or Obs. [1702]
  • 8 b. Proud or arrogant, or (in later use) pompous or pretentious air orbehaviour; (a piece of) swagger. to cut a swell, to ‘cut a dash’, swagger. (Cf. swell v.9, 10)? Obs. [1724]
  • †8 c. Turgid or inflated style of language. Obs. [1742]
  • 9 a. colloq., orig. slang. A fashionably or stylishly dressed person; hence, a person of good social position, a highly distinguished person. [1786]
  • 9 b. transf. One who is distinguished or eminent in achievement; one who is very clever or good at something. [1816]

So the noun went from various earlier general senses of a purely physical expansion, moved on to things like the sea, sound, and music, and then took on extended senses related to an inflated style of dress or presentation of self, even pompous and pretentious. Think of a dandy. It was these that led to the adjectival use. You should probably look at some of the verb senses that came into existence from the same time period, because they are related to the noun uses we’re talking about:

  • 9 a. intr. To show proud or angry feeling in one's action or speech; to behave proudly, arrogantly, or overbearingly; to be ‘puffed up’; to look or talk big. Obs. or arch. (partly merged in sense 10). [a1250]
  • 9 b. Used in reference to turgid or inflated style of language. [1712]
  • 10. To behave pompously or pretentiously, swagger; to play the ‘swell’. Also with it. [1794]

So the verb fed the noun, which fed the adjective. Here is the full adjectival entry, modulo detailed citations. Notice it starts out with senses related to fashion, just like sense 9 of the noun, and then extends from there.

swell, adj.

Etymology: attrib. use of swell n. 9
colloq. Now chiefly U.S.

  • a. Of persons: Stylishly or handsomely dressed or equipped; of good (social) position; of distinguished appearance or status. More recently, in weakened use as a general expression of approval. [1810].
  • b. Of things: Distinguished in style; stylish; first-rate, tip-top. Also similarly weakened: ‘great’, ‘fine’, etc. [1819]
  • c. swell mob n. a class of pickpockets who assumed the dress and manners of respectable people in order to escape detection. Hence swell-mobsman n. a man belonging to the swell mob. slang. Now Obs. or Hist. [1836]
  • d. pred. Most pleasant or kind; very effective; ‘splendid’. U.S. [1926]
  • e. int. As an expression of satisfaction. [1930]

Citation

swell, adj.
Second edition, 1989; online version March 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/195717; accessed 05 June 2012. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1919.

share|improve this answer
    
But what does "swell" in this sense have to do with growing larger? That's my main question. –  Daniel Jun 5 '12 at 18:30
    
@Danielδ It’s not about "growing larger". It derives from sense 9 of the noun "swell", which was a person with all spiffed-up clothing. –  tchrist Jun 5 '12 at 19:08
1  
My question is: is sense 9 of the noun "swell" etymologically related to the verb and other noun meanings of "swell"? –  Daniel Jun 5 '12 at 19:09
5  
Copying dictionary entries, especially long ones, is not particularly helpful. If you must copy, only do the relevant entries, and leave at most a single relevant one. This is way too long to bother reading, it just fill sup screen space. If you have extra explanation to go along with it, that would be -very- welcome. -Do not- copy the full OED entry; at the lengths you've gone to that's questionable 'fair use' anyway. –  Mitch Jun 5 '12 at 21:25
    
@Mitch I think I don’t understand what Daniel really is looking for. –  tchrist Jun 5 '12 at 21:30
show 6 more comments

The same-spelled word can of course have distinct origins for its distinct meanings. To me, "swell" as a corruption of "well", serving to contract any of "You're looking so well", "It is well", or "It looks/tastes/sounds well", is far more plausible than the other proposals for its slang meaning of good/well. The word "well" is right in it (as it would be, in a contraction). This appears to be a case of the etymologists tripping over themselves when popular slang happened to produce a word spelled the same as a known, historic word.

By the way, one noteworthy use of "swell" is in the 1939 Cole Porter song, "Well Did You Evah!" Porter did not invent the slang meaning, which must have been around for some years before.

P.S. (added later): You can do a simple experiment on yourself. Just say "That is well" (or if you prefer, "Yes that sounds well") several times in a row, fast. You will find the move to "That's swell!", and then just "Swell!", almost impossible to avoid.

share|improve this answer
add comment

The colloquial adjectival use is probably a contraction of "so well", and not related to the verb. No citations, I just think that's a good guess.

share|improve this answer
3  
I don't think it is a good guess. –  Colin Fine Jun 5 '12 at 22:47
    
@Colin Fine Why not? Do you think that usage of swell in the sentence, "You're looking swell, kid" could not possibly be a contraction of "so well" –  Rob Jun 6 '12 at 1:40
add comment

I would say that based on the evidence so far, the two meanings are not related and are simply homophones. Just because two words are spelled and pronounced the same, doesn't mean that they necessarily have any common etymological roots.

share|improve this answer
5  
But the fact is they do. –  Barrie England Jun 5 '12 at 19:36
2  
It's my understanding that words such as you describe (i.e., homophones with no common etymological roots) are usually listed in the dictionary under separate entities (the first denoted with a superscripted "1", and so forth). So, quite near to swell in my print dictionary, I find swallow^1 (to take into the stomach) and swallow^2 (the bird), but only one entry for swell – with close to 30 meanings, but only one origin. –  J.R. Jun 5 '12 at 20:51
add comment

Perhaps there is some serious etymology here, but: "Swell" as an adjective is a 1950s slang word for "good". There are probably hundreds of slang words for "good" and "bad". When I was a kid in the 70s slang words for "good" included "cool", "groovy", "far-out", "tubular", and "rad". I'm sure the present generation has their own. Perhaps whoever decided that these words should mean "good" had some logical, carefully thought-out reason for it. I think it more likely that it just popped into his head at the moment.

I've occasionally mused that it would be interesting to pick some totally random word and get a few people to start using it as a slang word for "good" and see if you can get it to catch on. Like go around saying, "Wow, that was totally perpendicular, man!" I bet that if you got the right people to use it that others would pick it up.

share|improve this answer
4  
Not my downvote, but 'swell' goes back way beyond the 1950s. –  Barrie England Jun 5 '12 at 16:07
1  
The OED entry for swell, adj. has citations back to 1810 and 1812. The predicative use dates to 1926, and the interjective use to 1930. It was not originally as U.S.-centric as it would later become. –  tchrist Jun 5 '12 at 16:39
    
It was not my intent to say that the word "swell" was invented in the 1950s, but that its use as an adjective meaning "good" was popular in the 1950s. –  Jay Jun 6 '12 at 15:49
    
Update: I'm not sure how to distinguish different uses of a word, but I tried running a Google ngram on "swell party", thinking that a likely use of "swell" as an adjective meaning "good". books.google.com/ngrams/… It peaks in 1940, which is earlier than I expected, and I can find a few uses in that sense going back to at least the 1870s, which is older than I would have expected. I don't have an account with OED: are those 1810 cites uses meaning "good", or something else? ... –  Jay Jun 6 '12 at 20:53
    
... I'll retract as far as saying that the "good" meaning is older than I thought, and it peaked in the 40s rather than the 50s. :-) –  Jay Jun 6 '12 at 20:54
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.