Swot swat?

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Boris Johnson called  Jeremy Corbyn a "big girl's blouse"  in parliament last Wednesday, and on Friday it was revealed that he had referred to David Cameron as a "girly swot" in a cabinet note.  For Americans not versed in British slang, the OED tells us that a swot is "one who studies hard", and explains that swot as an abstract noun refers to "Work or study at school or college; in early use spec. mathematics". The Guardian story tells us that

It is not the first time Johnson has used the insult about the former prime minister. In 2013, when he was London mayor, Johnson called Cameron and his brother, Jo, “girly swots” for gaining first-class degrees at university, when the current prime minister had to make do with a 2:1.

and links to a tweet from MP Allison McGovern asking "What is it about big smart women Boris Johnson doesn't like?"

A possible clue emerged during the Leo Varadkar's contribution to yesterday's joint press conference with Johnson:

The Irish Prime Minister said:

If there is no deal,
it'll cause severe disruption
for British and Irish people alike.
Not so much on the continent.
And whatever happens,
we'll have to get back to the negotiating table quite quickly.
And when we do,
the first items on the agenda
will be citizens' rights,
the financial settlement,
and the Irish border —
all issues which we had resolved
in the withdrawal agreement made with your predecessor,
an agreement made in good faith by twenty eight governments.
But if there is a deal,
and I think it's possible,
we'll enter talks on a future relationship agreement
between the E.U. and the U.K.
It's going to be very tough,
we'll have to deal with issues like tariffs,
fishing rights, product standards, state aid.
And it will then have to be ratified by 31 parliaments.
Prime minister, negotiating F.T.A.s with the E.U. and the U.S.,
and securing their ratification in less than three years,
I think is going to be a herculean task for you.
But we do want to be your friend, and your ally —
your Athena —
in doing so.

As the Guardian explains ("Why did Varadkar say he wanted to be Athena to Johnson's Hercules? The Irish PM cited a Greek goddess famous for knocking Hercules out to prevent him causing further damage", 9/9/2019):

In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena did assist Hercules as an ally during the performance of his 12 labours. She provided, for example, bronze krotala – noise-makers similar to castanets – to help him scare off the flock of Stymphalian birds. And in some versions of the tale she was also of service to him by returning to their rightful place the golden apples of the gods that Hercules had been asked to obtain.

But it is perhaps her most dramatic intervention in the life of Hercules that Varadkar was obliquely referring to.

Hercules was obliged to perform the 12 labours as an act of penitence after he had descended into madness and murdered his wife, Megara, and his children. At the moment he was about to go on and kill the man who had fostered him, Amphitryon, Athena intervened. Seeing that he had gone mad, she struck Hercules down and knocked him out to prevent him causing more bloodshed and doing more damage than he had already done.

Very much what you would hope for from a friend and ally, but maybe not what you would want to hear on the international stage at a moment of tense diplomacy.

Athena is the goddess of "wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill" — the original "girly (goddess of) swot", here threatening to deliver another well-deserved swat.



  1. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 8:31 pm

    Question about Varadkar’s phonology: He says what sounds to my W.Pa. U.S. ear to be “negoþiating”. He doesn’t seem to “lisp” otherwise, so I’m wondering if that’s an Irish thing or what?

  2. The Original “Girly Swot” | Cloven Not Crested said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

    […] This post on Language Log, playing on a subtle remark by Irish PM Leo Varadkar, turns the tables so deftly, and ends with a rousing hit of reempowerment. […]

  3. cameron said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

    The noun "swot" is related to the verb "to swot", which can be translated by the American verb "to cram". Although I guess the American "cram" has a last-minute connotation that "swot" lacks.

    I suspect that the verb came first, but I have no evidence. Do the dictionaries decide, one way or the other? "Swot" is schoolboy slang, but could easily be several centuries old.

  4. Kate Bunting said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 3:45 am

    My late mother (b. 1912) used to refer to revision as 'swotting', but it wasn't a term we used at school (1960s).

  5. mollymooly said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 4:14 am

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti: Question about Varadkar's phonology

    The first t in "negotiating" is an /s/ not a /t/ (common in BrE and IrE) and the following /i/ — almost reduced to a /j/ glide — palatalises the /s/

    [(myl) Wiktionary gives the pronunciations

    in which /ʃ/ is the only outcome given for American English, and /ʃ/ is preferred to /s/ in RP. Dunno about RP, but the American version agrees with how I (think I) talk.

    As for how Mr. Varadkar proonounces it, here's the sentence:

    and the word:

    I hear the relevant consonant as mollymooly does, as a mildly palatalized [s] rather than a lisped interdental — backed rather than fronted — and the spectrogram seems consistent with that analysis:

    More interesting to me is the treatment of the second orthograpic 't' — marked with a green arrow in the waveform plot above — which comes out as a voiced flap…

  6. AlexB said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 4:19 am

    Already in 2002, Jeremy Paxman wrote about Boris Johnson in 'The Political Animal':
    Asked to name the members of his party's shadow cabinet (he cannot), he exclaims, 'What a girly swot question!'

  7. DJL said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 4:24 am

    Boris Johnson never misses an opportunity to remind everyone that he studied Classics in Oxford, and I suppose Varadkar was testing his knowledge, so to speak.

  8. Ursa Major said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 4:44 am


    The OED suggests the noun came first and is a variation of "sweat", originially military (officer training) slang referring to hard work and especially mathematics. The entry looks pretty out of date though, so I don't know if that is still accepted.

  9. Paul Turpin said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 6:03 am

    Cuthbert Cringeworthy the class swot. https://beano.fandom.com/wiki/Cuthbert

  10. mollymooly said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 6:07 am

    John Wells on "negotiate"

    I think we would probably all agree that the s form has overtones of exaggerated formality, perhaps prissiness. In some cases I suspect it may also be a spelling pronunciation.

  11. Paul Turpin said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 6:37 am

    In the '60s and '70s at my very minor public school a chap might 'swot up' or 'bone up' on a subject prior to a test; this was forgivable though to be 'a swot' wasn't!

  12. Stephen Goranson said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 6:59 am

    A little searching in usual suspect places, including Green's Dictionary of Slang (online), Anatoly Liberman's Bibliography of English Etymology (e.g. Emil Koeppel, Archiv 1901: 46), HathiTrust etc., suggests that (apparently) no one has come up with a better etymology that a northern sounding "sweat." In Notes & Queries (as OED's snippets suggest) the first entry was a question about swot as used by in the military of those who were called in cant conversation "good swots" at mathematics. So the later reply about William Wallace (1768-1843), who did teach maths at the Royal Military College (from 1803 to 1819?). is, at least, plausible.

  13. Benjamin E Orsatti said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 7:58 am

    Why do I love LL? — Because you ask a question, and get an erudite, thoughtful reply — backed up by spectrograph analysis — in response!

    So, thanks, mollymooly!

    Interestingly, listening to the clip through my computer speakers, rather than through my cell phone speaker, I can now clearly hear the "mildly palatalized [s] rather than a lisped interdental" in the first iteration of "negotiating" at c. 0:07. I'd agree that it doesn't sound like the tip of the tongue quite touches the front teeth there. But what about "negotiating" at c. 0:48? Doesn't it sound like a lightly lisped interdental just there?

    If not, I wonder if it's an "expectation" error on my part. (Mollymooly (I'm guessing you're Irish, based on your handle, Br./Ir. spelling, and the fact that you posted at 4:04 a.m. EST), you might find this interesting). I'd venture to guess that most Americans (at least in the Northeast), myself included, generally "expect" native Irish English speakers to speak more-or-less like we do — rhotically, with more tonal variation than is seen in RP, somewhat more aspiration with the (somewhat softer) dental consonants (thinking of the housekeeper in "Father Ted" as an extreme example of this), and somewhat of a "Midwestern" (U.S.) "flavor" to the vowels.

    …which may be why the first "t" in "negotiating", here, violates my expectations (i.e., expecting "ʃ", but hearing "þ", where it actually may be closer to "sj") and the _second_ "t" violates yours. You're _expecting_ an "Irish", aspirated, unvoiced dental, but I'm expecting the good ol' fashioned "American" unstressed-syllable-voiced-dental-flap.

    Am I right? Am I close? Do I get a Guinness for trying?

  14. Trogluddite said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 10:09 am

    At the state comprehensive schools that I attended in the UK during the 70's/80's, the case was much the same as @Paul Turpin describes – labelling somebody with the noun was almost exclusively intended as an insult, while the (rarely used) verb was seemingly more neutral. Even without Mr. Johnson's favoured modifier, which I don't recall being attached very often, I always had the impression that there was a connotation of effeminacy when directed at the boys (at least, overtly misogynistic/homophobic slurs would very often be directed at the same "deviants".)

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 11:28 am

    At my British grammar school during the late 50s/early 60s, "swotting" for examinations was de rigueur and whilst being called "a swot" wasn't necessarily the highest praise, it certainly didn't have the negative connotations that Trogluddite reports. Perhaps this reflects the different aspirations/expectations of those who attended grammar schools vis-à-vis those who attended comprehensives; at my school, entering the sixth form and then going on to university were regarded as the norm, whereas those such as myself who left at the end of the upper fifth (for financial reasons) were very much in the minority.

  16. mollymooly said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 12:10 pm

    But what about "negotiating" at c. 0:48? Doesn't it sound like a lightly lisped interdental just there? — not to me.

    the _second_ "t" violates yours. You're _expecting_ an "Irish", aspirated, unvoiced dental — No I amn't. The tapped intervocalic /t/ has gained a wide currency in Ireland.

  17. Benjamin E Orsatti said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 12:34 pm


    Shh! ("ʃ"?) If word gets out here across the pond that phonology changes in Ireland just like everywhere else, and that not everybody goes around lilting and aspirating like our grandparents and great-grandparents (or TV leprechauns), the Emerald Isle'll burn off all its quaintness capital, and then were would your tourism revenue be?

  18. Chandra said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 2:29 pm

    @Cameron: "The noun "swot" is related to the verb "to swot", which can be translated by the American verb "to cram". Although I guess the American "cram" has a last-minute connotation that "swot" lacks."

    I (a Canadian) recently had a discussion with a British friend about education-related verbs, wherein I learned that (according to them) "to study" means strictly to learn a subject, not to reread material for a test; the latter would instead be "to revise" (which to me implies reviewing or editing one's own work). Now I wonder where exactly "to swot" might fall in between "to study/revise" and "to cram". Does BrE not have a verb with the connotation of last-minute studying/revising?

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 2:36 pm

    Chandra — "Does BrE not have a verb with the connotation of last-minute studying/revising ?". Not a verb but a verbal phrase : "to swot up". "Swotting up" is what one does to prepare for an examination.

  20. Jim D said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 4:44 pm

    "swot" sounds like it is the equivalent of "nerd", someone engrossed in their studies.

    "girly swot" would, again, be a homophobic slur. (But probably so ingrained in Johnson's vocabulary that he doesn't even realize the underlying meaning, much like in the US, saying something is gay/lame/dumb/retarded; many of us grew up with one or more of those terms and used them mostly innocently.)

  21. Paul Turpin said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 5:58 pm

    Yes, Basil Fotherington-Tomas inmate at St Custard's was one of the types of the English prep school: "Aktually it is only fotherington-tomas he sa Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature tho the less i smell and hear them the better."
    I think there were no swots in these boarding school stories.

  22. Iain T said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 6:58 pm

    As another usage data point. At uni in Tasmania in the late 90's we had "swot vac", which was the week in between the last lecture and the start of exams.

    I don't recall whether it was used in other circumstances though.

  23. Language Log » Swot swat? said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 4:07 am

    […] Language Log » Swot swat? […]

  24. austimatt said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 6:53 am

    At my grammar school in London in the 1980s, 'swots' got good results because they did lots of revision, whereas the success of 'boffins' was due to their natural ability rather than hard work alone. Both were used as insults ('girly swot' wasn't unknown) but it was better to be called a boffin than a swot.

  25. Chandra said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 12:49 pm

    @Philip Taylor – So "to swot up" carries the sense of urgency that "to swot" does not?

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 4:35 pm

    Yes, I think it does. One "swots up" for something (a definite end), whereas one "swots" because it is in one's nature so to do (i.e., one is a swot). Almost everyone "swots up" when an examination is looming, but only swots habitually "swot".

  27. Philip Anderson said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 4:43 pm

    I would also use “swot up” on something before an interview, and I think there is a sense of urgency. Cramming to me is an old-fashioned term – a boy might have been sent to a ‘crammer’ (tutor) before sitting a school entrance exam.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    September 12, 2019 @ 7:13 am

    I have always interpreted "crammer" as referring to an institution rather than an individual (a tutor) — an institution (i.e., a school) that, rather than focussing on the traditional character-building skills (etc), instead focusses to the exclusion of everything else on preparing its pupils for forthcoming examinations.

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