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Swoose

Pronounced /swuːs/Help with pronunciation

I was searching the Oxford English Dictionary for a collective term for swans when I encountered this:

A bird prodigy of evil and hybrid character is the despair of a Norfolk farmer. It rejoices in the name of the “swoose”, a portmanteau word indicating its origin, for its father was a swan and its mother a goose. This ill-assorted pair had three children — three “sweese”.

Daily Mail, 13 July 1920.

It wasn’t the earliest mention of this curious hybrid, the first having been in the Harrison Times of Arkansas in 1911, though it, too, referred to a bird accidentally bred in Norfolk. The name must have been fairly widely known by 1920, since a horse named Swoose was racing then. The Daily Mail mentioned the birds several times that year, reporting that the young sweese were terrorising the farmyard and killing ducks. “Of late,” the paper noted, “their character has been relapsing into such savagery as may prove their ruin.” News of the birds spread widely. If we are to believe this American report, their name briefly became part of the vernacular:

Much public interest is evinced in these queer birds and nowadays when an ill-tempered husband rouses his wife to the point of retaliation, she gives vent to her feelings in the culminating insult: “You swoose!”

Wisconsin State Journal, 5 Sep. 1920.

A very few other sweese appeared in the 1920s and 1930s as crosses between various breeds of goose and swan that were kept together on farms. The word reached the hit parade in 1941 when Alexander the Swoose, a song performed by the Kay Kyser band, reached number 3 in the charts.

This led directly to the most famous swoose, a B-17 bomber that American forces based in Australia had created by cannibalising other aircraft and nicknamed the Swoose because of its hybrid character. It was piloted by Frank Kurtz, who in 1944 named his daughter after the plane. Swoosie Kurtz has become a well-known actress. She was once asked whether she had thought of changing her name: “Change it to what — Tiffany? It’s been an advantage. It’s unforgettable. I’m the only one.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Jun. 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 19 June 2010.