English English language Etymology Expression Language Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Let’s swap

Q: During the pandemic baking craze, people making “adjustments” to a recipe have said things like “I swapped out wheat flour for almond flour.” I find this confusing.

A: “Swap” is a legitimate English verb, and there’s nothing wrong with the more emphatic form “swap out” either, as in “swap out X for Y.”

The “out” isn’t necessary but it’s not incorrect, as we wrote in 2012. The use of “out” makes for a more casual usage, but then “swap” is a rather casual verb to begin with, certainly more informal than “substitute,” a similar verb we’ve written about.

Though “swap” may be described as less than formal, it’s a perfectly respectable verb dating from medieval times. As Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage puts it, “Swap is in use in all but the most formal writing.”

Though there’s nothing wrong with “swap,” we agree with you that the verb is sometimes confusing. Here’s why.

In its exchange sense, “swap” is generally used two ways: (1) to swap one thing for another and (2) to swap things with someone else. Note the two prepositions.

As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, to “swap” means to give or dispose of in exchange “for something else” or to exchange (things) “with another person.” The dictionary uses the italics.

So both of these sentences would be acceptable: “I swapped wheat flour for almond flour” and “I’ll swap recipes with you.”

However, some people use “with” for both usages, and that’s probably what you find confusing: “I swapped wheat flour with almond flour.” Did the swapper end up with wheat flour or almond flour?

The “for” version, in our opinion, is clearer because the preposition unambiguously means “in place of.” So to “swap X for Y” plainly means to put X in place of Y.

As we’ve written before, we feel the same about “substitute.” The use of “with” is accepted there, but we find “substitute X for Y” clearer than “substitute Y with X.

Now for some etymology. You’d never guess it, but “swap” was probably onomatopoeic in origin. That is to say, it means what it sounds like—a clap or a smack.

As the OED explains, when the verb first appeared in writing in the mid-1300s it meant to strike or smite, and it was “probably of echoic origin, signifying a smart resounding blow.”

(The dictionary notes a similar echo effect in dialectal German, where a schwappe is a “resounding box on the ear” and schwappen means “to make a clapping or splashing noise, to strike with a resounding blow.”)

So how did the bargaining or trading  sense of “swap” emerge in English?

As the dictionary explains, by the late 1300s, it was being used with the apparent sense of “to ‘strike hands’ in token of an agreement or bargain.” And to this day, striking is associated with bargaining.

“The development of the sense of concluding a bargain from that of striking is paralleled in various uses of strike,” according to the OED.

For example, people arriving at an agreement have been said to “strike a price” (first recorded in 1526), “strike hands” (1530), “strike truce” (1544), “strike peace” (1624), “strike a league”  (1749), “strike a bargain” (1766), and “strike a compact” (1865). The newcomer, “strike a deal,” isn’t discussed in the OED, but we found an early use from 1882.

Getting back to “swap,” in only a few decades it moved from the sense of striking a blow (circa 1350) to that of striking an agreement.

Oxford’s earliest citation for the bargaining sense, where the meaning is “apparently to ‘strike hands’ in token of an agreement or bargain,” is from an anonymous Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (circa 1390):

“Sweet friend, swap we so—sware with trawþe / Queþer, leude, so lymp, lere oþer better” (“Dear sir, swap we so—swear with truth / Whether hands, in the end, be empty or not”). We’ve expanded the OED’s citation to include the line about hands.

Two centuries later, the verb was being used to mean “to strike (a bargain),” the dictionary says. Here’s Oxford’s earliest example: “Aliena … swapt a bargaine with his Landslord” (from Thomas Lodge’s prose tale Rosalynde, 1590).

Very soon afterward, “swap” acquired its modern sense and was used alone, without “bargain” as an object. We’ll repeat the OED’s definition: to give or dispose of in exchange “for something else”; to exchange (things) “with another person.”

The dictionary’s earliest example: “Soft, Ile not swap my father for all this” (John Lyly’s play Mother Bombie, 1594).

The old hitting and smiting uses of “swap” are mostly obsolete today, but the bargaining and exchanging senses of the verb have survived.

It’s used both with and without direct or indirect objects, as in “They swapped clothing” … “He’s agreed to swap” … “I’ll swap you for it” … “Don’t swap with him” … “They buy, sell, and swap.”

There’s also the mid-19th-century expression “swap horses in midstream,” defined in the OED as “to change one’s ideas, plans, etc., in the middle of a project, progress, etc.”

As for the noun “swap,” it developed in a somewhat parallel fashion. Like the verb, the noun originally had senses in the late 1300s relating to a blow struck, though occasionally it was used to mean a kiss (perhaps a noisy one).

Meanings related to an exchange, however, didn’t appear for hundreds of years. The OED’s earliest example is from the early 17th century:

“They … will either beg them, or make a swap with you in priuate” (from a compendium of travel narratives, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, by Samuel Purchas, 1625).

Finally, a few words about the spelling of “swap.” In its earliest uses it was spelled with an “a.” But over the centuries it’s also been spelled “swop,” particularly in British English, and the “o” spelling is accepted today as a chiefly British variant. In the OED’s opinion, “the spelling swap for both [verb and noun] is recommended.”

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