Swither is such a delicious word. It conveys its meaning with perfection. It has a swooning, sweeping quality that summons up the feeling that everyone experiences occasionally – hesitation, indecision, doubt, to be perplexed as what to do. It has an Edward Lear sensibility that sits happily alongside the best of his wordplay. For this reason it is our #wonderword of the week.
Its etymological origin is a little vague but placed sometime in the early sixteenth century. British but more commonplace in Scotland where it has become a beloved word.
According to The Bottle Imp ¹ e-zine, written and maintained by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, “swither” is given full and loving treatment as the “Scots Word of the Season” in their fifth issue. According to Maggie Scott, a lecturer in English at the University of Salford:
“The origins of ‘swither’ are unclear, although connection with an Old English verb of similar form and meaning has been suggested. Besides faltering or hesitation, the word can also indicate fluctuation or fitful movement, and the Dictionary of the Scots Language records a number of instances of swithering cloud formations and unstable markets.”
And just as good are the words that rhyme with swither. Blither, hither, dither, slither, zither, whither, wither!
¹ The Bottle Imp is named for a short story written by Robert Louis Stevenson, of which an online version can be downloaded here.
Here’s another glorious #wonderword! One you might be forgiven for thinking was the name of a villain in a James Bond film but in fact dégringolade is used either as a verb or a noun to describe a more serious state of affairs – that of a decline or deterioration. Not just any old type of decline but a rapid one. One minute up, next minute down, just like Captain Haddock of Tintin fame whose life is a series of disasters interspersed with acts of comedic heroism. It also brings to mind yesterday’s inglorious tumble in political clout and prestige of the British Prime Minister, Theresa May.
A prime case of semantic drift dégringolade’s etymological origins are Middle French (desgringueler) meaning to tumble and also Middle Dutch (crinkelen) to make curl, similar in fact to the English words of “crinkle” and “crank”. In other words dégringolade indicates not only decline but its speed and trajectory. Got it?
Its first known use was in 1873; perhaps not so surprising as this was but six years before the French Revolution. Although mostly commonly found in French usage it does pop up in English especially in political and financial journalism, for example,
“For a Democratic Party in the depths of political dégringolade, liberal-Progressives throughout DC and the media are expressing a level of bravado that reeks of either an embarrassing feign or a deep level of denial of the message sent to them by the American people.” ¹
Or in the case of the English author Julian Barnes from Nothing to be Frightened of, his maverick twist on the family memoir,
“Though I based the story on a septuagenarian dégringolade I heard about elsewhere, which I then grafted on to my parents’ home life, I didn’t deceive myself about what I was up to. I was retrospectively – posthumously – giving my father a bit of fun, of extra life, of air.” ²
Either way it is a fantastically expressive and imaginative word to be savoured.
¹ Winters, P. M., “Democratic Party Dégringolade”, Dignitas News Service, 6 November 2014.
² Barnes, J, Nothing to be Frightened of, (Jonathan Cape), 2008. For a review of this book written in the New York Times by Garson Keillor click here.
For the pronounciation of dégringolade click here.