Swanning around origin
April 25, 2007 9:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the earliest appearance of the phrase 'swanning around' - To travel around from place to place aimlessly.

A friend says that she had read somewhere that its origins are in World War II and refers to the appearance of the tank turrets and guns and how they used to look a little lost as they were moving about so it became 'to swan'.
The on-line dictionaries I've consulted cite Jeffrey Archer! “Swanning around Europe nowadays, are we?”. The oldest Google book usage I could find was 1923 (Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry), so I'm sure my friend is wrong unless she mixed up the World Wars. Has anyone got a Partridge handy to look up swan? Can any of you dig up something earlier?
Also, a search for 'swan around' turns up a 1907 mention, but without preview, so I can't see the context. Considering the title (Our Plymouth Forefathers: The Real Founders of Our Republic), it may well be - 'they decided to cook a turkey because there were no swan around'.
posted by tellurian to Writing & Language (9 answers total)
Where I come, "swanning around" doesn't mean moving aimlessly - it means showing off.
posted by flabdablet at 10:10 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have another look at "Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry", Tellurian - I think the 1923 date may be an error. Unless I'm going blind, the subtitle in the scanned frontispiece is 1919-1957, so this edition must be published later than 1923. (Perhaps 1923 refers to a previous WWI version of the book?)

The OED has the following:
2. To move about freely or in an (apparently) aimless way (formerly, spec. of armoured vehicles); hence, to travel idly or for pleasure. Freq. with about, around, or off. slang (orig. Mil.).
1942 Daily Tel. 3 Sept. 6/6 Breaking up his armour into comparatively small groups of..tanks, he began ‘swanning about’, feeling north, north-west and east for them [sc. British tanks].
posted by zamboni at 10:24 PM on April 25, 2007

The way I've seen/heard the phrase used, it refers to a flamboyant person (perhaps a woman or a gay man) roaming around making a spectacle of themselves.

The military usage may be based on this earlier non-military sense.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:31 PM on April 25, 2007

Hmm. The listed info is for Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, 1914-1919 / by Ralph Hodder-Williams, but the scanned frontispiece appears to be for Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, 1919-1957. Vol. 3 /, / by G.R. Stevens. It appears there's been some kind of mix-up at Google Book search.
posted by zamboni at 10:36 PM on April 25, 2007

Well spotted zamboni. So, now I don't know if the snippet is from the 1923 edition or the 1957.
posted by tellurian at 10:53 PM on April 25, 2007

'Swanning about' turns up quite a few snippets in Google books about tanks, all from the 50s. So it looks like that might be the go and the original snippet I found is from the 1957 edition.
posted by tellurian at 11:04 PM on April 25, 2007

I could have sworn I've seen this in P.G. Wodehouse. (This doesn't fully answer the time question - he wrote both before and after WWII, even though his books are set before.)

Incidentally, in my ear the only way this phrase can be used is like this:
[person] [is/goes] swanning about [location] [in condition].

For example,
Zsa Zsa was swanning about the Riviera in furs.
Miss Glinly has taken to swanning about the place with a conspicuous Bible in her hand.

It doesn't sound right to just say "she was swanning about", full stop. You need to specify place or condition (or both).
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:40 PM on April 25, 2007

zamboni is correct. The OED's earliest citation is 1942, and the earliest to include the specific phrase "swan around" is 1947 C. DAY LEWIS Poetic Image 111 "A few bold or bomb-happy types still swanning around outside."

The definition mentions that the phrase formerly referred specifically to armoured vehicles, and is of military origin. I can't imagine that there are any pre-WWI uses, because tanks were not yet invented.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 1:24 AM on April 26, 2007

From Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:
Swan about or swan around, To. To move around aimlessly. A phrase popular among troops in the Second World War to describe a tank moving apparently aimlessly across the battlefield, like a swan swimming idly about the waters or meandering with others in an aimless convoy. The long gun barrel additionally evokes the bird's long neck.
posted by robcorr at 3:35 AM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

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