Swagger: “To behave with an air of superiority, in a blustering, insolent, or defiant manner; now esp. to walk or carry oneself as if among inferiors, with an obtrusively superior or insolent air” (OED). Also a noun: a swaggering movement or gait; boastfulness; braggadocio (American Heritage Dictionary).
Shakespeare may have been the first to use the verb in print, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600):
What hempen homespunnes haue we swaggring here, So neere the Cradle of the Fairy Queene?
Jonathan Swift turned swagger into a noun in his 1725 poem, “A New Song on Wood's Halfpence”:
The butcher is stout, and he values no swagger;
A cleaver’s a match any time for a dagger...
Swagger may derive from the much earlier swag, which also was a verb before it was a noun. In the early 1520s swag meant “to move with an unsteady gait”; it probably came from Old Norse sveggja, to swing or sway. I’ll have more to say about swag (and also schwag) in another post later this week. Meanwhile, let’s take a look at swagger in the news and in the ads.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has been the subject of a spate of recent swagger references, as in this subhed on Slate.com last month.
And in a headline in the Chicago Sun-Times a few weeks later:
The stories referred to Perry’s bluster rather than to a swagger stick, “a short stick or riding crop usually carried by a uniformed person as a symbol of authority.”
British army captain, World War I, with swagger stick (Wikipedia).
The swagger stick was once popular among US Marine Corps officers (Perry served in the air force); it became part of the official Marine uniform in 1915. In 1960, the Corps’ commandant, David M. Shoup, relegated it to “an optional item of interference.”
Swagger is popular among sportswriters, too.
The Des Moines Register article quotes a team member:
“There’s more of a swagger,” linebacker Jake Knott said. “No matter what situation we’re in, we think we can get out of it.”
Technology entrepreneurs have also been known to indulge in swagger. Earlier this month, shortly after Mike Arrington made a dramatic departure from TechCrunch, the company he’d founded, venture capitalist Fred Wilson blogged:
Yes TechCrunch gets scoops. … But TechCrunch also has a voice, a swagger, a “fuck you” attitude that comes from Mike.
This was intended as a compliment.
Swagger is also associated with certain (male) musical entrepreneurs. (Is swagger a sex-linked characteristic? A topic for another day.) Here’s Esquire on one of its “75 Best-Dressed Men of All Time” (February 17, 2010):
Because this is a little something we call swagger, gentlemen, and though he might be a harmless businessman, the black leather and sunglass combination is pure menace.
It’s 68-year-old Mick Jagger’s good fortune to have a surname that rhymes with the word du jour.
Canada.com’s Misty Harris listed some of the recent songs in which Jagger has been name-checked. They include “Swagger Like Mick Jagger” (And She Whispered), “Swagger Jagger” (Cher Lloyd), and “Swagga Like Us” (Lil Wayne and Jay-Z ).
Harris turned to a couple of experts for linguistic perspective:
According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer, former On Language columnist for the New York Times, musicians’ sweetness for swagger took root fully a decade ago.
Jay-Z used it in the song All I Need (“I guess I got my swagger back.”)
The term was abbreviated on the rapper’s 2003 album (‘check out my swag, yo’), with a major “swagger uptick” following in 2007 and 2008.
Zimmer says the latter was largely thanks to songs by M.I.A., Kanye West and T.I., as well as the cultural traction of the expression “swagger-jacking” - stealing another artist’s style.
Another lexicographer, Wordnik founder Erin McKean, chose Swagger for the name of Wordnik’s API. (“The Swagger framework simultaneously solves server, client, and documentation/sandbox needs.”) The word “perfectly communicates boldness without aggression,” she told Harris.
Maybe “boldness without aggression” was in the naming brief for Old Spice Swagger.
Swagger by Old Spice (deodorant, body spray, body wash): “Turn up your mansmell.”
Old Spice even invented a football stat, SWG (short for swagger), that it inserted into the Madden NFL video game. “[W]ord has it that it's a kind of confidence rating,” reported the gaming blog Kotaku, “so if that player is involved in a big play or a score, he gets an attribute boost for a few plays after that.”
Old Spice Swagger was a 2010 relaunch of “Glacial Falls,” the brand’s worst-performing scent in 2008. As Swagger, the scent “far exceeded our goals,” according to the company’s submission to a marketing awards competition. (Swagger won silver in its category.)
While we’re in marketing-land, let’s not forget the Toyota Sienna, the minivan also known as the Swagger Wagon. (The link includes an amusing white-hipster rap video.)
Coming soon: Also posted: the scoop on swag and schwag.
Great post! Your research is always the best. I remember Q in a James Bond movie saying something like, " No need to swagger here 007. I'm not impressed."
Posted by: Nick | September 26, 2011 at 06:08 PM
I'm sorry, I just choking on my coffee at the sight of the phallic packaging for Old Spice Swagger. Really?
And is there a difference between swagger and swagga?
Posted by: Nancy Davis Kho | September 27, 2011 at 08:41 AM
@Nancy: I think it's equivalent to the difference between "gangster" and "gangsta."
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | September 27, 2011 at 08:42 AM