Q: When did the term “wild swimming” become common? I first I heard it a few years ago in an episode of the BBC mystery series Vera. Since then I’ve noticed it more and more. When I was a kid, we swam where there was enough water: a pond, a river, a lake, a pool. We called it all swimming.
A: The phrase “wild swimming”— swimming outdoors in natural waters—has been around since the late 1990s. It originated as a British usage, which is why you first noticed it while watching that BBC mystery series.
The Vera episode you mention first aired in the UK in 2012. In the script, Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope briefs colleagues about a murder victim whose body was found on a riverbank:
“Jenny Lister. Forty-one years old. Social worker. Wild swimming enthusiast. Now according to Billy, she was stunned by a blow to the head, probably with a rock, and then held under the water until she drowned.”
The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase “wild swimming” as “chiefly British” and defines it as “the practice or activity of swimming for pleasure in natural waters, typically rivers and lakes.”
The dictionary’s earliest known use is from Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (1999), by Roger Deakin: “With so much twenty-four-carat water everywhere, there’s a tradition of wild swimming in all the towns and villages.”
In the book, Deakin, an environmentalist and documentary maker who died in 2006, describes a swimming tour he made in 1997 through Britain’s waterways, starting at the Isles of Scilly and ending at the North Sea.
When it was published in 2000 in the US, the trade magazine Kirkus Reviews called Deakin’s book “the foundational text for the international ‘wild swimming’ movement.” Since the book appeared, it has inspired a documentary and dozens of books on the appeal of swimming in open waters.
Deakin can probably be credited with inventing the term “wild swimming” as it’s popularly used. We’ve found only one earlier example, but it’s probably an outlier, since it appears to use “wild” in the sense of unauthorized or in an undesignated area:
“Tourist traffic at dams and banks, wild swimming and wild camping, sports fishermen and pedestrians cause damages in forests, at embankments and at structures.” (From Developments in River Basin Management, 1987, edited by Kokei Uehara et. al., a collection of papers presented at a conference in Brazil in August 1986.)
The OED’s 21st-century examples include two from British newspapers: “Wild swimming is much more fun, it is a sort of communion with nature” (The Bath Chronicle, Aug. 3, 2004) … “It’s an old quarry that is now an oasis that empties and fills with the tides, and it’s a wonderful place for wild swimming” (The Times, May 17, 2015).
Not everyone is fond of the term. In a column in The Guardian last year, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote: “I’ve never been a fan of the phrase ‘wild swimming’; in Snowdonia [Wales], where I grew up, we always just called it swimming. To call it ‘wild,’ I feel, is to centre the urban, the municipal and the populated, and to place the rural and the natural at the margins.”
We can see her point. The use of the modifier (“wild”) implies that the default mode of swimming is in an artificial pool built for the purpose. This is analogous to the phrase “woman doctor,” which implies that the default doctor is a man.
As for the adjective “wild,” it’s been in written English since the early eighth century in its general sense—existing in a state of nature. It was inherited from the Germanic languages; the OED points to the Old Saxon wildflêsc (“wild meat”) and the Middle Swedish wilskin (“wild leather”).
When first recorded in English, “wild” was used to describe plants and animals. It meant “living in a state of nature; not tame, not domesticated” (as applied to an animal), and “growing in a state of nature; not cultivated” (as applied to a plant or flower).
The earliest known uses in writing are from a Latin-Old English glossary dated around 725: “Indomitus, wilde” and “Agre[s]tis, wilde” (the first used for animals, the second for plants). The citations are from the Corpus Glossary, so named because the manuscript is held at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University.
Beginning in the 800s, the adjective was used more broadly—at first to describe uncultivated or uninhabited places, and later it was applied to people in senses both good and bad. It could mean free or unrestricted on the one hand, but uncivilized, unruly, or immoral on the other.