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).

9 comments on this post.
  1. Duggan McC:

    Re: definition of swimmingly…Execellent! i first heard the word many years ago in the Marx Bros movie, “Coconuts”. A villianess replied over the phone, “things are going just swimmingly”. thus began my search for it’s definitio, which led to my sometime use of swimmingly ( i use to inject humor in a convo and always wait to hear someone say, “SWIMMINGLY, what’s that mean!)
    Yours was the best explaination i’ve read! I never knew it had Germanic roots. Your explaination was done… swimmingly!

  2. Mark Moran:

    Not really using it right yet Mr. McC. One does not do explanations swimmingly. Think “They got along swimmingly.” or “Things went swimmingly.”

  3. Jules:

    “its” definition, not “it’s”! 8-)

  4. admin:

    I think it’s worth noting that I approved this comment in the queue thinking it referred to the article itself, i.e., that the error was mine, which it might well have been. I know the difference, but I hate the distinction, between “its” and “it’s.” So I cut people a whole nine yards of slack on this one.

  5. Pat Anders:

    I first heard this term during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In response to a question from Houston, Command Module Pilot Mike Collins responded, “Things are just going swimmingly, babe!”

  6. Elaine Williams in Baltimore:

    I love this adverb!

  7. Rob Q:

    The origin of swimmingly to mean “with steady, smooth progress; in an easy, gliding manner” probably descends from swim’s hoary floating meaning rather than its watery locomotion meaning.

  8. Ken Kukec:

    “I can’t play poker worth beans …”

    No worries. We have a seat open at our table. Bring plenty of money.

  9. Chasen:

    I first heard it on a commercial. Later learning it was from the Apollo 11 mission. Before i knew that though, i was like, swimmingly, why would an astronaut say that unless he’s in water. So i look up some space walks, they were all 2 hours or more, so i watched a 5-min clip to see if they were swimming. (Watch “Space Station Crew Conducts Milestone Spacewalk” on YouTube
    https://youtu.be/TwBVaAH7q-k) A few minutes into the clip i saw a bubble. Then i was like no wonder he said swimmingly, he was swimming! Then i heard it on a show or something so i decided to see if it was really a word. Sure enough.

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