The Grammarphobia Blog

Swoft-boating

Q: Is “swoft” a word? I’ve been told it’s an old word for a liar, but I can’t find it in my dictionary.

A: “Swoft” is a very rare word, but it isn’t about lying. It’s about dirt and dust bunnies. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “swoft” as “sweepings.”

This isn’t a word you should expect to run into every day. The OED has only a single example of its use in writing, one that appeared in Middle English around the year 1250.

But the writers of the TV series House MD may have unwittingly spread the impression that “swoft” means “liar.” Here’s how the word was swoft-boated.

In an episode that first aired in March 2010, Dr. Gregory House (played by Hugh Laurie) and two other doctors go speed-dating.

House is intrigued when he meets a woman who’s holding a newspaper that’s folded to reveal a partly finished crossword puzzle.

But in glancing at the paper, he realizes it’s only a prop, because the puzzle has been filled in with fake words like “swoft.”

When he calls the woman’s bluff, he offers a very pointed, impromptu definition of the made-up “swoft”—a manipulative liar.

So much for invention. Getting back to the real “swoft,” this rare noun apparently came from a now obsolete verb, “swope,” meaning sweep.

The verb was first recorded in Old English sometime before the year 1000 and has relatives in other old Germanic languages, the OED says.

A related adjective, “swopen,” meant “swept,” as in this example from the 1300s: “Vppon the swpen grounde eche nygt he lay.” (“Upon the swopen ground each night he lay.”)

As you probably suspect, the old verb “swope” was eventually replaced by “sweep,” a word that began appearing sometime before 1300 and has been around ever since, despite the invention of the vacuum cleaner.

The people (often small boys) who made a living by cleaning soot from chimneys were first referred to in the 1500s as “chimney sweepers” (later “chimney sweeps” or just “sweeps”).

In the mid-19th century, “sweep” became a term of contempt for a disreputable person, as in “a drunken sweep” or “you dirty sweep.”

A disreputable person might be a liar, of course. But at least in common usage, a liar hasn’t yet become a “swoft.”

But stay tuned. Perhaps House’s invention will catch on. Stranger things have happened.

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