I Swan

“I swan.” I’ve heard it all my life, so far. My father still says it from time to time, and on occasion I catch myself using it in polite company, substituting the benign phrase for something less delicate. And yet, every now and then when someone says, “I swan,” I get this vivid image of the bird, elegant in the water, from a distance its feathers fresh-snow pristine. I may even think of Yeats, the swans at Coole, the one with Leda in its rough embrace. Well, maybe not that far.
But I know the phrase has nothing to do with birds or even much to do with the word “swan,” which can be backtracked to Swedish, Saxon, German. The Indo-European root means “to sing,” which the birds do, as well as whistle, whoop and all sorts of other discord. Pens and cobs and cygnets. All beside the point, as “I swan” is a mild oath, sometimes rendered as “I swanee,” but nothing to do with the river or the college of the literary journal. It’s a way of saying “I swear” without sounding crude. “Dodging the curse,” they call it in Ireland, as when an old landlady of mine in Gort emphasized statements by adding “be jay,” which was nothing to do with the blue bird but a way of not quite saying “By Jesus” while still exclaiming, still hitting the bold case exclamation mark.

So we say “I swan” either because we learned it early or to escape any penalties the Almighty has in store for those who use foul language. We seek refuge in fowl language, instead, but when someone says it, catches me off guard, I see a graceful thing gliding, and it lifts me, as if I had caught a little thermal and rose.
Does anyone use it a different way?

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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19 Responses to I Swan

  1. Philip Belcher says:

    I come from the “swanee’ branch of the family, and I’m grateful for the illumination of your post. I’ve no doubt that my father, a Baptist minister, used (and uses) the exclamation to avoid saying “I swear.” Using “swear” as a swear word was forbidden, as was any word that might be mistaken for a too casual use of the idea of God, e.g. golly, gosh, ga, galdarnit (although the latter was so unusual that it was deemed more humorous than profane). I look forward to any posts that might expand the definition.

  2. Rod Smith says:

    Not a word they used a lot in “Deadwood.” I noticed that, years ago in Ireland, some folks thought my use of the word exotic; whereas, I had to get used to hearing, “and then your man swanned in, full of opinions and self-regard,” or some such. Now Al Jolson’s employment of “swanee” is an altogether different kettle of nails.

  3. Barbara meetze says:

    Besides swan or swanee to avoid saying swear, my mother also used “oh, fudge!” or “oh, petunia!” to instead of authentic cuss words. And “oh, fiddlesticks!”

  4. Lloyd Snook says:

    One friend of mine would say (when he was really ticked), “I swanee swear…” which kind of defeats the purpose, I guess.

  5. Lauren Starnes says:

    I have never actually heard the term “I swan” before, but when I was much younger I used to make up my own semi-swear words. For instance, my mother would not allow me to say “crap,” so I said “crash” instead!

  6. Brooks Keenan says:

    My grandparents (World War I generation) and all their friends from Sommersville and Charleston, WVA used “I swan” all the time, as a way to avoid saying the curse “I swear.” The Lord’s name could never be taken in vain. Anyone calling another person a fool would be quickly corrected and reminded that the Bible forbids calling one of God’s children a fool. They were sincere and principled people.

  7. Erica Abrams Locklear says:

    I grew up hearing this phrase, and for the people I knew, it was used synonymously with “I declare.” For example, “Did you hear about so-and-so’s boy, the one who’s always getting himself into trouble? His mama told me this time he stole a cow.” Response: “I swan” or “Well, I declare.”

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  9. I think I picked it up from reading, and for me the swan=bird sense came through, it seems to carry the meaning of “I declare, I marvel at this occurrence”.

  10. Bob Duffy says:

    My family’s (frequent) use of “I swan” was often rendered “I’ll swan,” or even better, “I will JUST swan.” It is astonishment, pure and simple in Hardeman family usage. We were Episcopalians and not particularly squeamish about saying “I swear” and if the situation merited it, “No s–t.”

    I love “I swan.”

    BTW, when someone says someone else was swanning around, imagine a swan moving gracefully and dramatically through a crowd. It implies a certain elegance and also a certain pretentiousness.

  11. Arleen Leischner says:

    My grandmother said “I swan to my time” frequently. She passed on a number of years ago and I’ve never again heard the phrase until I read it in a book a while back.

    • Daniel Fields says:

      My grandmother also said “I swan to my time” quite often. She was born and lived all her life in southeastern Oklahoma. In what book did you find this phrase?

  12. Mary Armstrong says:

    My mother used to say “I swan” or “I’ll swan” to indicate astonishment, meaning I declare. I interpreted it to come from something like “I wonder” or “it’s a wonder”.

    It is interesting to hear the other uses and interpretations of it and to know a lot of other people used it.

  13. Arnín says:

    We commonly use old phrases in my house and ,”I swan” or “Do swan?” (meaning “Would you swear by that?” Or “Are you serious?” depending on the context of the conversation) are at the top of the list. My Ma used to say “By jay do swan!!” And that was your cue to run because a wooden spoon or leather strap was headed right for your rear side.

  14. Kent says:

    My mother was born in and grew up in rural central Texas and became a young adult during the Great Depression years following 1929. She used to say “Well, I’ll swan,” which I understood to mean “Well, I do declare”. She and my dad used to also say, “If the creek don’t rise” when promising to be somewhere at a certain time. This phrase had a literal meaning to them as there actually was a road to Waco that would be under deep water if Tehuacana Creek, a tributary to the Brazos River, was flooded.

  15. meg mansell says:

    “I’ll swan to my time” and “God willing and the creek don’t rise” were common expressions in North Eastern Oklahoma in the 40s and 50s.

  16. James Woodward says:

    In the late 40’s and early 50’s, I used to hear my grandfather say “I swan” frequently. He lived in South Carolina. I also heard the expression “If he Good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise” during that same time.

  17. Michael says:

    I’d like to see the culture get back to soft exclamations. Though some folks saw all of them as disguised cussing, they don’t have the coarse, (formerly) shock impact of today’s all-too-common “F” and “S” words. My mother, too, reminded us that the Bible forbade “fool”.

  18. Frederick says:

    Chester on Gunsmoke sometimes says “Well I’ll swan!” When i was young, someone in my family used to say “Well I’ll be swanee.”

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