Every time an awards show hits the news, there’s talk of swag. Swag, in this context, refers to the free promotional items given to those who are part of the event. But the term swag is much older than you might think, and originally it referred to money or goods acquired by unlawful means, usually by a thief or burglar. Not always, but usually. And in the end, whether your swag is promotional or stolen, it’s technically ‘free’ for the person who is in receipt of it.
It has nothing to do with the urban legend that the word is from the 1960s and is a way of announcing one’s proclivities or preferences, so you can disregard the memes on the internet saying that swag is an acronym meaning this.
It has nothing to do with a secret code for wealth preservation by the top 1% of the world. It doesn’t stand for silver, wine, art, and gold, and it isn’t a recent term to represent silver, wine, art, and gold. That’s a story some conspiracy theorists would like the rest of the world to believe is true.
If either of those tall tales were true, then how did swag-barrowman, swag chovey, swag cove, and swagman make it into 19th century language? It’s because swag has been around for a very long time.
A few months ago in August 2016, CBS Detroit ran a story which was published on their website as well that reported on a bag of custom sailing gear stolen from outside the east side home of a Detroit Olympian. It was recorded by a Good Samaritan. The story was titled, “It’s A Detroit Miracle: $10,00 Worth Of Gear, Rio Swag Stolen From Olympic Sailor Recovered On East Side.”
The Tuscaloosa News ran a story in their June 4, 1942 edition by foreign correspondent reporter and political activist, Ludwig ‘Louis’ Paul Lochner (February 22, 1887 – January 8, 1975) who had just returned to New York from overseas, with an editor’s note to kick it off. It dealt with inside information from Germany, which was, at the time, a country heavily censored. The first paragraph read as follows:
It’s all gravy for the Hitler boys – if Der Fuehrer should win the war. The Nazi party will be in more complete control of the country than ever, and the party button will open the doors to all positions, all graft, and all swag.
In the poem, “The Smuggler’s Leap: A Tale Of Thanet” by Thomas Ingoldsby, esq. — aka English cleric, novelist, and humorous poet Richard Harris Barham (6 December 1788 – 17 June 1845) — and published in Volume X of “Bentley’s Miscellany” compiled by London publisher Richard Bentley (24 October 1794 – 10 September 1871) and printed by antiquarian and publisher Samuel Bentley (10 May 1785 – 1868), published in 1841, the word is used thusly:
“Now mount, my merry men, mount and ride!”
Three on the crupper, and one before,
And the led-horse laden with five tubs more ;
But the rich point-lace,
In the oil-skin case
Of proof to guard its contents from ill,
The “prime of the swag” is with Smuggler Bill!
Back in the day, everyone knew that the swagsman was the thief who carried the stolen property after the burglary had been committed. But you know, that Smuggler Bill had a lot in common with pirates.
Yes, even pirates knew what swag was in the 1600s although it was oftentimes referred to as booty. There were times when it was known as swag and every pirate knew swag meant gold and riches and other valuables. Among the most prized swag one could find was a pipe with a covered lid – a treasured piece if a pirate had one to call his own.
Pirates were causing mayhem from the beginning of the 15th century, but the Golden Age of Pirates was from 1690 to 1720. That’s when most of the swag was being stolen by pirates who knew how to steal and get away with it.
Before that, swag meant a chop that sold cheap trinkets. Somewhere between the early 1600s and when pirates were making a killing plundering ships, the word swag went from meaning that to meaning the loot gotten by theft by bandits and vagabonds.
So whether it’s free promotional giveaways in bags at events or it’s loot pilfered from someone’s home, swag as we understand the word today dates back to the late 1600s thanks in large part to those pirates of the seven seas.