What does “swell” mean?
Are you reading a nineteenth-century novel and have you come across a reference to a man characterized as “a swell?” It isn’t commonly used today in this sense. If you haven’t seen Judy Garland and Fred Astaire singing “We’re a Couple of Swells” in Easter Parade, you may infer from the context of the novel what the word means, but then the scholarly researcher in you might feel the need to verify your interpretation. Where to turn? Why, the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) of course!
Clicking on the “Encyclopedias & More” tab on the Penrose Library homepage, we can then click on Oxford English Dictionary to access this classic dictionary to the etymology of English words. The OED provies definitions for words, with examples of the use of the word in that sense from the first time it appeared in a print source and thereafter. Searching “swell” in the Quick Search box, we limit to the word as a noun, and browse through the definitions which include the obsolete “morbid swelling” as well as those that are still relevant: “the condition of being swollen, distended or increased in bulk,” “the rising or heaving of the sea,” “a piece of land rising gradually and evenly,” “a sound, esp. musical,” “a contrivance for gradually varying the force of the tone in an organ,” and a “lever in a loom,” until we come to definition number 8b, “proud or arrogant.”
This definition sounds plausible until we see 9a, slang for “A fashionably or stylishly dressed person; hence, a person of good social position, a highly distinguished person,” which was used consistently in this sense, when referring to an individual, throughout the nineteenth century.
How else might we know this is the sense in which the word was meant, although in a more derogatory fashion? Why Lily Dale tells us herself in Trollope’s The Small House at Allington,” in which she describes Mr. Crosbie as “a swell,” and Trollope concurs: “Mr. Crosbie was a swell.” Rebuked by her sister Bell, who says “I don’t like those slang words, Lily,” Lily replies, “Oh; a swell. I fancy I do like slang. I think it’s awfully jolly to talk of things being jolly. Only that I was afraid of your nerves I should have called him stunning. It’s so slow, you know, to use nothing but words out of a dictionary” (chapter 2).
But it is “stunning” (“Excellent, first-rate, ‘splendid’, delightful; extremely attractive or good-looking”) to find meanings to words from previous eras in such a fascinating dictionary. Explore the English language via Oxford English Dictionary, and enjoy the richness of our language over time.