Q From Don Kachur, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: I am in the household moving (removals) business in Canada. We call a driver’s assistant a swamper. No one can tell me why. Can you help?
A I would have laid bets against being able to turn up the answer to this, but the Oxford English Dictionary has all the details. It seems it was originally applied to workmen who cleared roads for the fellers of trees in a swamp or forest. The word uses swamp in its old sense from the American colonies of an area of rich soil having trees and other vegetation, but too moist for cultivation, not necessarily an area that always contains standing water. The usage goes back at least to 1857. The job was unskilled labouring and later the word moved over to refer to other jobs of similar kind — a man-of-all-work in a liquor saloon, an assistant to a cook, then an assistant to a driver of horses or mules. This dates from 1870, and seems to be the direct ancestor of the usage you describe.
After this piece first appeared in the newsletter, John Wilkins wrote to say that “Swamper is also used among Colorado River whitewater guides as the name for a helper who assists the guide with meal preparation, clean up, and boat duties”. Gordon Louttit remembered that “As a teenager in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the early 1960s, I worked as a boxboy (nowadays a clerk’s helper) and later a grocery clerk. On the days when the delivery trucks rolled in, the more athletic of the boxboys and young clerks were designated as swampers to go help the drivers unload the trucks”.