Mind your language

Swathe

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

Swathe is a popular word at the moment, and ignorance of its meaning, spelling and pronunciation deters no one. It is in the papers every day (swathes of empty seats at Wimbledon), and I was interested to hear it on the wireless the other evening pronounced to rhyme with moth. Can that be right?

The army of Amurath, so Longfellow wrote in his tale of Scanderbeg, was ‘Mown down in the bloody swath/ Of the battle’s aftermath.’ That’s definitely wrong. An aftermath was the second growth of grass, after its first mowing, which is what math means. Mowing or math is what you do in a meadow. Math rhymes with path but, the OED tells me, swath can indeed thyme with moth or else with forth. In its alternative spelling, swathe, it rhymes with bathe.


The spelling swathe and the pronunciation that goes with it are influenced by a different word, the swathe of linen that makes a bandage. Wrap someone in bandages and they are swathed, or swaddled. Swaddling-clothes we associate with the infant Jesus. A curiosity is the nickname in Ireland of swaddlers for Methodists, and then for any Protestant, which originated in the 18th century and was familiar to James Joyce. One explanation is that a Methodist preacher referred to the Child in the manger in swaddling clothes, a term unfamiliar to Catholic hearers. Yet the Catholic Rheims version of the New Testament, from 1582, uses the word swaddle, and Challoner’s 18th-century revision of it uses swaddling.

Anyway, a swath of land is not a bandage or strip. The swath is the amount that a scythe mows, either in a stroke or in a day (an acre, someone says). Yet the original meaning, in Beowulf or King Alfred’s version of Boethius, was ‘a track’. One can see how a swath of grass or corn resembles men mown down in battle, but although Matthew Arnold wrote of a swath of water torn from a wave and Ruskin of rain, no one seems to have applied the metaphor to men in battle before Longfellow. Nowadays, commonly used as a synonym for ‘large areas’, it is a lifeless cliché.

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