Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Search This Blog

Thursday, December 25, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Swans a-swimming

Seven Swans a-swimming

The word "swan" seems to be related to the Old English words geswin (melody, song) and swinsian (to make melody), apparently in reference to the sound made by the whooping swan:


Now, if I sounded like that, I'd be booted out of the choir in short order, but in the Middle Ages, a belief arose that swans sang a beautiful song just before their death.  This belief has inspired many artists, not least one of my favourite composers, Orlando Gibbons, doubly appropriate for today as he was baptized on Christmas Day in 1583:


Here is some word trivia for you: a male swan is called a cob; the word is of uncertain origin. A female swan is a pen, possibly derived from the Latin penna (feather) and its medieval French derivative penne (a long wing feather), but its origin is also uncertain. Both terms are first seen in the 1500s.

Baby swans, as we all know, are called cygnets, and here are some delightful ones from Swan Lake (with Tchaikovsky providing a suitable honking sound from the bassoons and oboes at the beginning):

But why aren't they called "swanlings"? It seems that Anglo-Saxon didn't have a specific name for young swans. If the need arose, they were called "swan brids" (as we saw in the "calling birds" post, "brid" meant "young fowl" before it morphed into "bird"). 

This gap in the language was handily filled by the arrival of the French, who brought with them cigne (derived from Latin cygnus) and their diminutive ending -et. Cygnets were particularly valued as food (an odd idea to us now), and since French was the language of cooking, it's not surprising that English adopted a French name for them. Ironically, modern French does not have a specific word for "cygnet"; it has only jeune cygne.

You may be surprised to learn that the verb "swan" (move about freely or in an (apparently) aimless way;  travel idly or for pleasure) is quite recent, dating only from the Second World War, where it started out as military slang and applied specifically to armoured vehicles. The last thing I would think of when looking at a tank is a swan!

Having done the rounds of various artistic embodiments of swans, I cannot leave you without sharing this exquisite interpretation by Canadian prima ballerina Evelyn Hart of one of the most famous artistic "swan songs" (choreography by Michel Fokine). My Christmas gift to you. Heck, it's Christmas Day; you have the time to watch this. Tanks will be the furthest thing from your mind.


If you love ballet, please check out my season of outstanding ballet trips by clicking here.You can meet Evelyn Hart in person as she shares memories of and insights into The Sleeping Beauty over afternoon tea in Toronto, January 28, 2018. Details here: 

For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:

P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! You can either:
use the subscribe window at the top of this page
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady


  1. As an admirer of Gibbons and the father of a cygnet, thank you for this whole series!

    1. Thank you, Scott. Ooooo, Gibbons, how can any alto not love Gibbons?

  2. "...but in the Middle Ages, a belief arose that swans sang a beautiful song just before their death."

    3rd c BCE, some think - This belief, whose basis in actuality is long-debated, had become proverbial in Ancient Greece by the 3rd century BC, and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.

    From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_song


About Me

My photo
Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.