Slang Origins: The History of Swag

One day, I was sitting at home, letting my thoughts wander as I did my tedious tasks. Then, I wondered about swag. Not only the usual question of how I have so much of it, but I thought about how this word became so ingrained into today’s vocabulary for the tween to young adult demographic. In fact, I wouldn’t know what it would even mean back in, say, 2012. Where does this word come from, and how did we start using it? I’m Ian Kimbell, and this is the first of my new series, “Slang Origins.” Let’s take a little ride.

The first mention of the word swagger was in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The character Puck delivers the line, “What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here?” In this sense, the term “swagger” was used to mean swaying or swinging. However, swag is often mistaken as a root of swagger, when in all actuality, it is its own word.

The first mention of the word swag goes back to 1593 when it meant “controlling influence.” The term had been dying down for a while, then resurfaced in the 1800s. Why? Swag has been used for centuries among British thieves as slang for stolen loot. It is also a type of Australian tent and a term for complementary merchandise given out at fairs and events. In these cases, swag has always been a type of material, similar to how it is used today.

Although swag has been used as a term for loot for many years, it didn’t surface in America until 2001. 2001 was a special year on the swag timeline, as it was used for the first time in American rap in a song called “All I Need,” by Jay-Z. Among hip hop historians, Jay-Z is credited as being the inventor of swag. Jay-Z began to use swag on a few of his songs, but the term really became popular in 2007, when Jay-Z and T.I used it in their hit single, “Swagga Like Us.” However, remember that “swagga” is slang for “swag,” and is therefore not what we’re looking for. In 2008, Soulja Boy used “swag” in his music titled, “Turn My Swag On.” Between 2010 and 2011, swag became a desired trait by all hip hop artists. Swag was churned out by many, such as a group called the Cali Swag District released, “Teach Me How To Dougie,” and Sean Combs temporarily changed his name to “Swag.” Swag was the All Things Considered “Hip Hop Word of the Year” in 2011.

With a history in Shakespeare, England and hip hop, it is a wonder that swag came back to be a major word today. Although considered a trend or phase, swag shows no intention of showing down. I’m Ian Kimbell, and join me next time where we discuss the hashtag symbol.