Culture / Gender Studies / Language in Society

To Swag or not to Swag?

Originally, “swagger” is used to define a way of walking “swaying from side to side” according to the Oxford Online Dictionary. Walking being associated with attitude or behavior, the meaning of this noun spread to “a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive gait or manner” according to the New Oxford American Dictionary. It is also a verb to indicate the corresponding act. The Oxford Online Dictionary has an entry on the adjective “swagger” “British informal, dated: smart or fashionable”. This last definition is the closest to the current use of “swag” in the US, as a diminutive of Swagger.

Nevertheless, “Swag” as it emerged in the beginning of the 21st century, is a neologism which is not yet recognized as part of the conventional language. Indeed, another use of the term appeared recently within a segment of the American population living in urban communities, influenced by street culture at large (music, street wear, talk…) and mainly African American. Urban Dictionnary gives 300 different definitions of swag and the majority of them revolve around the notions of confidence, charisma and style.

How hip-hop artists made this term popular?

It is possible to trace the history of the word in this context by looking at its utterances in music (particularly hip hop), which have given visibility to the word and have helped to spread it. In 2008, rappers T.I, Jay Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne released Swagga Like Us, a track based on a sample from M.I.A’s “Paper Planes”  released in 2007.

“No one on the corner has swagger like us”

The song, featuring some of the most popular hip hop artists, was performed during the 51st Grammy Awards in 2008.

At the same time, Soulja Boy released the album iSouljaBoyTellem containing the song “I Turn My Swag On”, sold over 1,000,000 digital copies. Since it has been used in many other songs. In 2010, the California based band Cali Swag District released the hit “Teach Me How to Dougie” (twice platinum record) and launched the Swag movement in rap, a mainly west coast style associating jerky music and dance with skateboarding and street wear brands. In May 2011, Rapper Puff Daddy made a public announcement that he was changing his name to “swag”.

Swagger and Gender

In 2007, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published the study “Swagger, Sway, And Sexuality: Judging Sexual Orientation From Body Motion And Morphology,” analyzing sexed behaviors and linking the perception of a swaggering gait to masculinity4. This article helps us link this phenomenon of swag to a social movement, particularly reflecting the importance of body language and attitude in a public space in social classification, more specifically gender classification.

“Social perception relies on a variety of physical cues, but the perception of biological sex and gender appears to rely heavily on two cues that are sexually demorphic and may therefore be per- ceived to be gender typical or gender atypical. (…) The body’s motion—specifically, its gait—is also sexually di- morphic and has been related to judgments of sex and gender. (…) Walk motions that depict swaying hips are perceived to be feminine, and walk motions that depict swaggering shoulders are perceived to be masculine.” ( Johnson et al., 322-323).

This idea is valuable in the reflexion on swag in music and culture. A distinctive swagger being perceived as a sign of masculinity, it is something that a (male) individual must acquire and develop in order to be respected as an “alpha-male”. This idea of excessive testosterone, providing the individual with charisma and money is present in Gangsta rap and commercial rap. The term swag in rap music is refreshing those values of materialism, misogyny and homophobia. But the over-sexualization associated with swag is also used by female singers such as electro-rapper Kreayshawn who boasts about her sophisticated feminine style in the song “Gucci Gucci”:

“So posh, nails fierce with the gold gloss/ Which means nobody getting over me/ I got the swag and it’s pumping out my ovaries.”

This notion reflects a feature of rap rhetorical dialectic which is boasting. Rappers often address their words to an imaginary speaker who is virtually inferior to the singer.

Swagger in the 19th century

The article “The Decline of Swagger”, published in 1892, written by an unknown author for a science review is surprisingly contemporaneous. It is perhaps the only document which mentions the historical use of the term “swagger” referring to a boastful attitude.The author describes the use of gait as a metaphor for a person’s attitude and as a tool of contemptuous differentiation and links fashion to social status.

“We shall not, we hope, be accused of knocking another nail into the coffin of Respectability if we venture to point to the decline of swagger as one of the signs of the time. No doubt the change is somewhat recent, and the transition hardly complete. But we may take it as established that, for the moment at any rate, swagger is not the fashion. No doubt the consciousness of personal merit and possible superiority is as strong in human nature as ever. But most people are contended to asquiesce in the knowledge of the fact that, and are willing not to forego the particular form of its expression which is known as “swagger”, but even to live without expressing it visibly at all. The most obvious and disagreeable form of self assertion, which consists in making other people conscious of their inferiority by intensely unpleasant and supercilious behavior, has, of course, been dead and done with as a social claim for half a generation.”

Social swag

Although the article refers to a dead trend in the scientific world, it is striking to see that the process of swagger described here is the same than that of nowadays swag. Today’s aspirant to swag do not evolve in the scientific community, nevertheless, they crave for the same kind of recognition from their peers than that described in the article. The author even establishes swagger as “the parvenu’s besetting temptation; and the “scientific men” are the parvenus of the knowledge.”(P.115) What he calls “parvenus” could also be applied to rappers and to those who claim “they got swag”. Originally, swag was the prerogative of gangsters who lived a harsh life but could access material welfare thanks to music or less legal means. This idea is crucial to the “bling-bling” side of rap, which illustrates a fulgurant social ascension of singers, who stayed faithful to the street even if they became rich. Indeed, the swag movement is inseparable from street hard times and hustles.

Meme from the Archaic rap micro-series

Joseph Ducreux’s “Autoportrait en moqueur” transformed in a meme for the Archaic rap micro-series

An exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1992 called “Swagger Portrait” presents another aspect of the term. It displayed a large collection of portraits affiliated to “Grand manner” artistic movement during the second half of the 18th century. The “swagger portrait” is a style of portrait of middle-class sitters and “nouveaux-riches” who display an ostentatious pose and a confident attitude, affiliated to the “Grand manner” movement. This style of portrait survived until the 20th century and was practiced by John Singer Sargent among others. Even though the author of the review of the exhibition claims that the exhibition does not reflect a significant trend within English painting, the connection with today’s swagger is obvious. There again we find the notion of social “mise-en scène” aiming at recognition through style and attitude. The French painter Joseph Ducreux is said to have taken part in the movement, the 1793 painting “Autoportrait en moqueur” could be used to illustrate the genre. It was used as the template for a macro-series of memes (viral images on the web) called “Archaic Rap” which features paraphrases of rap lyrics in formal English. The most famous is probably the one stating “ disregard women, acquire currency” standing for Lil Wayne’s line “f*ck b*tches, get money.”

Illustration of innovation in popular language

The collection of documents found in popular culture (songs) and on social networks (memes, facebook groups and blogs) which reflect oral language. The evolution of language happens primarily at a spoken level and now more and more through the internet. As a consequence, Computer Mediated Communication and popular culture can be studied academically because they reflect trends and transformation of social habits.

    Searching for the meaning of swag actually permits to discover the mechanisms at work concerning the evolution of urban language. First, we can notice a semantic inversion: “swagger”, defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as a sign of “arrogant or aggressive” attitude, is a honorific title to the ones who use it. This phenomenon is similar to the use of “bad”, which meaning switches from negative to positive in what can be considered as Black English. But we find example of semantic inversions in French as well, for example the adjective “mortel” means somethings exciting and good where as its original signification is “deadly”. The second mechanism is the spreading of the word outside of the social group in which it originated the typical illustration for “swag” is to be found in music. A word originating from Afro-American “ghetto” life was used by Jay-Z and Soulja Boy who share this background, but because of their commercial impact, “swag” and “swagger” spread in other music genres. The pop singer Ke$ha in her song “Tik Tok”,uses “swagger” and makes it rhyme with Mick Jagger.

“Now, the dudes are lining up ’cause they hear we got swagger

But we kick ’em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger.”

She still uses the word to boast about the fact that she is the coolest girl but the context here is totally deprived of the street element.

From an underground use of the term, it has become mainstream and used in a lot of occasions. A third phenomenon I’d like to mention is the spreading of the use of “swag” in French. The commercial and cultural spreading of American and Afro-American culture in France. In France only the diminutive form is used “swag” and the reference to a way of walking disappeared. Only the reference to a clothing style inspired by American street wear remained.


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