Site name and logo


Q From Joe Fordham: Do you know where swizz is from? I used it as an exclamation of disappointment when I was a boy growing up in England, “Bloody swizz!” My British dictionary says it comes from swindle but I was trying to explain it to an American who was dumbfounded by the term.

A I know it well. As with you, it was a word of my youth. All the reference works I’ve consulted agree that it’s from swindle. But, as so often, there’s more to it.

Swizz (or swiz as modern dictionaries prefer to spell it) is a shortened form of swizzle. This is a late-eighteenth-century word for what a slang dictionary of the following century defined as “a compounded intoxicant”. It was usually rum or gin with bitters, made frothy by stirring. Hence swizzle-stick, which survives as a term for a stirrer of liquids, usually alcoholic. The origin of swizzle is unknown; it’s first recorded in Captain Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1788. This is from a few years later:

The landlord I soon found to be a knowing little chatty fellow, and one who knew how to please his guests. Never was I more entertained in my life than by his company. He was not one of your common dry brained swizzle venders [sic]; no, sir; he had read several characters carefully in the book of nature, and knew how to render a reason.

The Freemasons’ Magazine (London), 1 Aug. 1795.

There are some signs that a century later the word had become shortened to swiz, a development that was hardly surprising. The slang lexicographer Jonathon Green found it in the London humorous magazine Punch of 11 October 1884: “Political picnics with fireworks and plenty of swiz ain’t ’arf bad.”

What happened next is obscure, but we know that by the first years of the twentieth century the word had shifted into schoolboy slang for a cheat, scam or disappointing outcome. The first example in the slang dictionaries is from a letter from the poet Wilfred Owen dated March 1915 but a syndicated anecdote turns up in a number of transatlantic newspapers a few years earlier. It hadn’t become an Americanism — it had been borrowed from the British magazine Tit-Bits, a little tale in a careful transcription of contemporary London pronunciation:

“Now, there’s Jimmy Simpk’ns. ’E tell me only the other day that every time ’e takes a dose o’ cod liver oil ’is ol’ woman puts a penny in ’is money box. ’E must be gettin’ rich.” “No, I ain’t!” bawled Jimmy. “W’y, I’ve found out it’s all a swiz! When it gets ter ’arf a crown, she takes it out and buys anuvver bottle.”

La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wisconsin), 26 Feb. 1909. Cod liver oil was a medicament with an unpleasant taste often given to children by the spoonful at the period to help prevent rickets; half a crown in old British money was two shillings and sixpence or thirty pence; old woman here must be the boy’s mother.

The missing link is how swiz changed its meaning from alcohol to swindle, if it did and wasn’t a reinvention. Swizzle and swindle are similar but not sufficiently so for the one to easily transform into the other, even though the former was a fixed and frequent element of English vocabulary at the time. There has to be more to it.

Eric Partridge suggested in his Origins in 1958 that the original swizzle, like other mixed drinks, was pleasant to drink but very treacherous. I wonder whether the reputation of licensed victuallers in the nineteenth century for cheating their customers might have had something to do with the shift of meaning.

Support this website and keep it available!

There are no adverts on this site. I rely on the kindness of visitors to pay the running costs. Donate via PayPal by selecting your currency from the list and clicking Donate. Specify the amount you wish to give on the PayPal site.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 19 Jan 2013