I’ve always been fond of the word swindle: probably because of the arrival at a formative age of the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which had a song of the same name that ended with various would-be Johnny Rottens squeaking the word like a nightmarish update of Fagin’s gang from Oliver Twist. It’s not a word that is unique to British English at all, but that’s always the accent in which I hear it, as a companion to Victorian guttersnipery like like poxy (a catch-all term which comes from the poorest areas, where diseases like smallpox were an everyday reality, and means dirty, bad, low status, poorly-made).
Apparently, not everyone shares my affection, and the term got shortened at some point in the early 20th Century, down to swizz. The true derivation isn’t clear, but it seems feasible that some Bertie Wooster-type public school aristocrat, finding himself short-changed at the tuck shop and unwilling to commit to a full-blooded accusation, opted for a muckabout protest instead. This then caught on among his peers, one or two of whom ended up writing for a living, and spreading it via various children’s publications in the ’40s and ’50s.
Unlike wizard, you do still occasionally hear people talking about the raised prices at Motorway service stations as being a swizz, or even a bloody swizz, if they feel particularly aggrieved. Those x-ray glasses advertised in the back of comic books, they’re a swizz. Popular musicians putting two new songs on a greatest hits album to ensure their fanbase buy it, that’s a swizz. It’s a word best saved for the kind of petty, penny-pinching confidence tricks that won’t bankrupt anyone, but feel like a liberty has been taken with your good nature.
All of which made the arrival of the hop hop producer Swizz Beatz, quite entertaining. As far as he’s concerned, he named himself after his affection for K Swiss sneakers, just like Timbaland did with Timberland boots, but from where I’m sitting he might just as well have called himself Ripoff Rhythms.
Note for tourists: A squizz is something else entirely. If someone asks if they can take a squizz at the book you’re reading, do not be panicked by the American phrase take a wizz into thinking that they want to urinate on it. It just means they want to have a quick look.
And of course, if they then run off with it, promising to bring it back, and not doing so, well now you know what to call that too.
Which other British expressions would you like to know more about? Tell us here: