“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?