When one is expressing the idea of maximum effort being exerted sometimes we hear the phrase “the work is going on full swing.”

What is the etymology of this expression?

  • 1
    From dictionary.com: in full swing Also, in full cry. In full operation, at the highest level of activity. For example, After the strike it would be some time before production was in full swing, or His supporters were out in full cry. ... dating from the mid-1800s, alludes to the vigorous movement of a swinging body. [perhaps a bell, other sources] Mar 8, 2020 at 15:29

2 Answers 2


The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition for swing:

The course of a career, practice, period of time, etc., esp. as marked by vigorous action of some kind. Now chiefly in in full swing, in the full swing of ….

This is related to the sense you quote and, in fact, predates it:

The time of Antichrist, or desolation of the Churche, whose full swinge conteineth the space of .400. yeares.

Actes & Monumentes, 1570

As for the adverbial sense you quote, it dates back to at least 1840:

... rattling full swing down the hill...

Scenes and sports in foreign lands

  • 2
    The OP knows what the phrase means, but seems curious about how it came to have this meaning. What kind of literal swinging of what gave rise to this metaphorical meaning? Is this answer meant to imply that the phrase is so old that it's futile to wonder about its precise origins?
    – jsw29
    Mar 8, 2020 at 16:12
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Actually I have been looking for an up-to-date freely available source that gives quotes of the earliest attestations of different expressions. However, I suspect none exist; even the OED (not free) hasn’t stayed entirely up to date and I’m frequently able to find earlier attestations (as was the case here for the 1840 quote). Hence no close vote.
    – Laurel
    Mar 8, 2020 at 16:27
  • By 'expressions', do you mean 'above the single orthographic word level'? I've found a publication that gives synonyms of such expressions, and left it as a suggestion at the 'resources' post in Meta. 'The Thesaurus of English Idioms by George L Nagy' 'is the first serious attempt [2006] in the English language to construct a dictionary of synonymous phrases.' I'd suggest that this fills an obvious gap (a thesaurus for idioms), but, though it looks scholarly ('The current collection contains: 21,500 entries, ... Mar 8, 2020 at 16:34
  • including 12,500 core idioms; 9,000 cross-references with complete explanatory notes; 22,000 example sentences; 100,000 synonymous phrases explaining the idioms') I've never used it. / It is probably rather skimpy on etymologies. Mar 8, 2020 at 16:36

Etymonline suggests the following etymology:

Phrase in full swing "in total effect or operation" (1560s) perhaps is from bell-ringing.

while according to The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer :

In full swing:

Vigorously active. Various etymologists to the contrary, this term comes from a sixteenth-century use of swing for the course of a career or period of time. The only modern vestige of this meaning is in the cliché, which has survived. Indeed, it was already a cliché when George Meredith wrote (Evan Harrington, 1861), “A barrister in full swing of practice.”

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