Glub glub club.
Dear Word Detective: The word “swimmingly” means, idiomatically, “with great ease and success.” Where does this definition come from? Is swimming supposed to be the epitome of ease? I can imagine plenty of people have trouble swimming. I bet they would be offended if you used the word “swimmingly” to mean “with great ease and success.” In the event that this unintentional insult occurs, I’d like to be able to tell them the history of the word. — Caroline.
Hey, I’ll make you a deal. If you run into someone who is visibly offended by use of the adverb “swimmingly” because they, personally, cannot swim, send them to me and we’ll have a chat. While there were, obviously, some idioms popular in years past that are rightly regarded as offensive today, I think that a non-swimmer taking offense at “swimmingly” would be simply silly. I can’t play poker worth beans, but I’m not about to bridle at being told to “put your cards on the table” or “go for broke.”
Given that most of our planet’s surface is covered with water, it’s not surprising that “swim” itself is a very old word. The Old English “swimman,” meaning ‘to move on or in water, to float,” was derived from a Germanic root that also produced the words for “swim” in several other European languages.
Since movement through water is generally smooth (unless one is thrashing about in panic), especially compared to the “clomp clomp clomp” of walking on land, “swim” has acquired a wide variety of figurative uses, many involving a sense of gliding or moving smoothly as if suspended in liquid (“She … swam across the floor as though she scorned the drudgery of walking,” 1888).
This use of “swim” to mean “glide smoothly with little apparent effort” gave us the adverb “swimmingly” in the early 17th century meaning “with smooth, uninterrupted progress; easily; with complete success” (“The interview went off very swimmingly,” 1824).