On a recent visit home to southwest Virginia, my mind, primed by conversation with my 84-year-old aunt, turned to childhood memory. A few brain circuits later, the word “swarp” materialized out of the ether. I recall hearing my mother use that word, among other locals.
My definition is from local usage: To walk forward in a crooked or weaving fashion, as when intoxicated or addled. “Swarp” is a word I don’t remember hearing anywhere outside my home region.
Without knowing the etymology, “swarp” seemed to my ear a sort of hybrid, loosely combining “swerve” and “warp”, implying curvilinear or bending movement or shape.
To find out if the word is more widely known, I first consulted online dictionaries. There were no entries at either dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster. Naturally, I next turned to the Internet’s all-knowing oracle, Google.
The first search that caught my eye was at Urban Dictionary. The first definition for “swarp” there is said to be from east Kentucky, and the definition is “to party hard.”
The second definition reads as follows: “A kind of brash, sudden movement — typically with a body limb or motor vehicle — combining forward motion with angular inertia. ‘Next thing I know, Cletus had swarped that TransAm clear across the driveway and into the ditch.’”
The second definition was close to what I remembered, and the use of “Cletus” implies southern — or at least rural — origins. The small number of thumbs up votes for both definitions (26 and 32, respectively, at the time I accessed it) seem to reflect the word’s rarity.
Then I went back to Google, and . . . Jackpot! An article titled “An Appalachian Relic: Notes on ‘Swarp’” from Appalachian Journal (1981) is available online at JSTOR. I used my free “shelf” option to access it.
While the editors note some disjunct, and probably inaccurate references in the original article, enough has been confirmed to illustrate the storied journey of “swarp,” from its origins in England, to its contemporary and dwindling status in Appalachia:
Preliminary study has connected “swarp” with the English word “swarf,” which derives from the Middle English “swarff.” Akin to the Old Norse “swarfa,” the root thus seems to mean “to swerve,” though a Scots cognate means “to swoon.” C.D. Onions, in his seminal work, Etymologies of the Mountains, maintains that the word, in its variant spelling “sworp,” derives from a clever acronym devised in 1605 at the Plagued Dog Tavern in Cheapside, London, and that its letters are taken from the oft-repeated action of “standing while ordering repeated pints.” Onions notes that it became a tradition at the Plagued Dog to hold an annual Sworp High Day, at which some unfortunate reveller, his name drawn from the lacquered skull of a murdered Papal Zouave, had to present some “dithering delight” for the amusement of his fellows. In a rueful aside, however, Onions notes that the ritual lasted only one year, as the participants all “died miserably of the gout, or, like common wastrels and rogues, rotted in anonymous rural jails, defeated, forgotten, and bilious.”
Not to be outdone, Professor Pissel Bush, in his work “Why We Don’t Use Words We Never Use,” a popular revision of the earlier Wamblies, Git-Fidgets, and Poltroons, by Asa Middlehigh, the famous rival of Noah Webster, states:
Though not a popular word, swarp nevertheless has enjoyed occasional currency in the isolated coves of Eastern Kentucky, where wild groups of snake-handlers, ginseng-hunters, and gum-cutters, as well as other unsavory types such as versifiers, prevaricators, and the inventors of riddles, use it as a euphemism for being “shitte [sic] drunk.”
And in a footnote, Bush adds, somewhat moralistically:
The word, with its sweet sibilant beginning, promising ease and beauty and grace, yet ends with one of the harshest sounds available in English: so too do the practitioners of swarping descend from the deceptive silken heights of their drunkenness to the foul charnel-house of despair and crapulous degradation. “Swarping” is, indeed, a devil’s word, and as such belongs in no polite company.
And so it seems that the origin of “swarp” closely comports with my memory. My recalling it also indicates more widespread usage in the southern Appalachians (southwest Virginia, in addition to eastern Kentucky). I do wonder if the term was once more common in our southern highlands, and now nearly vanished, like so many other expressive and colorful words and phrases.
How about it? Anyone else out there of southern Appalachian heritage ever hear tell of anybody a-swarpin’?
But wait — there’s more! In a clarifying and fascinating footnote, the editors of Appalachian Journal wrote:
 Sworp High Day is indeed verifiable in the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, 1603–1625 (His Majesty’s Stationers, 1867), Vol. 1, p. 728. While the anonymous author of this present manuscript appears to associate Sworp High Day with anti-Catholic protestants (“the lacquered skull of a murdered Papal Zouave”), the C.S.P. Domestic suggests just the opposite. In 1605, the Star Chamber, under the influence of Sir Robert Cecil, first secretary to James I and afterwards the Earl of Salisbury, undertook a full investigation of Sworp High Day to determine its possible connection with a gang of Catholic plotters who were attempting to introduce continental pickled eggs into English ale-houses. Cecil’s investigation uncovered the apparently innocent circumstance that — only two weeks prior to the abortive attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament with gunpowder in November of 1605 — one Guy Fawkes had entered the Plagued Dog and called to the tapster for “a tankard for a yegg quiccke pickled.” This speech was recalled by the tapster, who was racked for his confession, and subsequently — as a result of Cecil’s investigation — three Catholic recusants were hanged in Cheapside to a general acclamation and the owner of the Plagued Dog had both his ears cropped and the tavern itself was pulled down, the ground plowed and sown with sea salt.
How about that? I have finally uncovered the full (?) meaning of “swarp.” What a remarkable history! I consider myself as proud as ever to be among the descendants of all the snake-handlers, gum-cutters, versifiers, and other unsavory, crapulous types who kept “swarp” alive. “Swarp” is a fine word indeed, worthy of resurrection from its relic status — as long as we don’t become bilious and devil-ridden in the process.
Join me at the pub sometime, where at long last we may recreate part of the Plagued Dog Tavern scene. Your dithering delights are welcome, but I’m afraid you’ll have to provide your own pickled eggs. After it’s over, we’ll swarp our way to our designated driver’s vehicles, or Lyft or Uber, which won’t swarp nary a bit on the way home.