Jargon Genesis: Swag

Quiz time. What’s the best part about going to a job fair? No, not the prospect of gainful employment. It’s the swag! I was once given a year’s supply of multi-vitamins from a pharmaceutical company at the end of a job fair; they didn’t want to haul the cargo back home. And I’m slowly using all the toothbrushes I picked up at a fair in B-school back in 2008!

But while you’re loading your suit pockets with freebies from various companies, hoping it doesn’t hamper your chances of getting a job with them, have you stopped to consider that term? Swag. What an odd word. Where did it come from? Allow me to enlighten you.

15th Century English – from Scandinavian svagga, to sway, rock unsteadily, or lurch

18th Century English – referred to an ornamental festoon or drooping fabric, likely the ancestral term for the American swag lamp

History gets a little murky from there, but the Australians have long used the term swag to mean a bundle or bag that hangs down, and through parts of history, a thief’s possessions, generally held in a drooping bag, have been called swag. In a 1921 book by Tom Norman, The Penny Showman, a salesman was described to have set out his “swag,” cups, saucers, gaudy vases, and other tawdry prizes for people to win. This may have been the direct ancestor of our current business-world use of the term swag, meaning free advertising products.

So there you have it, a somewhat vague and entirely useless defining of an oft used word. As a side note, I am aware that the term swag is often used in current rap songs. However, I have been unable to translate the lyrics into my vernacular, so the meaning in that context remains obscure to me.