Dead Word: Swachele

One of my favorite words to write about—so much so that it may soon become my standard—is swachele.

No one knows what it means, and its meaning is lost. I don’t know how I found it: I was probably browsing the Oxford English Dictionary and saw it in a list. Here’s the sum and whole of its entry:

Obs. Origin and sense  unknown.

Less than enlightening! It includes one original reference, in the diary of Simon Forman, which I find elsewhere referenced in The Notorious Astrological Physician of London.

This yere I bought many pictures about our Lady dai.  This sommer I had my own pictur drawn, and mad my purple gowne, my velvet cap my velvet cote my velvet breches my taffety cloke, my had & many other thinges & did let my hear & berd growe. . . . I bought my swachele sword this yer & did the hangers with siluer.

It’s theorized that swachele may mean “swash,” akin to flashy or a quality of swagger. It’s cute, to me, to see him struggle through the sounds of the language as he pens his daily goings and activities. This was quite common, nonstandard language variations from writer to writer, not unlike nonstandard time being kept by multiple pocketwatches prior to the invention of the train. But as the train united communities and required a standard timekeeping system to keep it running, the popularity of printed language necessitated standard usage. A plea for sanity, as I call it when I find myself locked in yet another fray against “living language.”

I have to wonder where Simon Forman picked up the word and why no one else wrote it down. I wonder where the word came from and what replaced it to the extent that it dropped out of usage. I don’t think it’s a terrible shame the word is dead and buried: this happens all the time, and there’s much fun to be had in exhuming historical literature to rediscover wonderful quotes and phrases that seem all the more exotic to us for their rarity. I’m less excited about the new words that accompany new technology—or, more specifically, that come about once teenagers get their hands on this technology—but language is a continuum… scratch that.  Ultimately, there is no such thing as a language per se: there is only the most popular dialect of the region, of the time.

And in my own time, every word we use will be recorded by multiple authors and archivists through a variety of media. So it’s more striking to me that one man used swachele and no one else wrote it down, and no one today knows for sure what it means. Back then, we didn’t have the technology to indulge in self-obsession such as we commonly see today. Looking at how we are now, perhaps that’s for the best.

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