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Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “swell” as in “That cat lover is a swell guy”? — Anne.

Swell guy, indeed. Try “That cat lover is a royal sucker.” In addition to the pack now infesting our house, we now have two or three who regularly show up on our front porch looking for a handout.

The use of “swell” in your example, as an adjective meaning “pleasant, kind, generous,” is actually a fairly recent development of the word and first appeared in print in the 1920s. “Swell” as an interjection meaning something from “excellent” to just “that’s fine” is even more recent, first found in the 1930s (“‘Swell,’ said Mabel, placing the document in her vanity-bag.” P.G. Wodehouse, Luck of the Bodkins, 1935).

Our English word “swell” is, of course, much older, first appearing in Old English, from Germanic roots, as the verb “swellan,” meaning “to grow or make larger.” (Fun fact: the past participle of “swellan” in Old English was “swollen,” which we still use as the past participle of “swell,” as in “swollen ankles.”) In general, our English “swell” has stuck fairly close to the original meaning of “grow larger” as elaborated in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb: “To become larger in bulk, increase in size (by pressure from within, as by absorption of moisture, or of material in the process of growth, by inflation with air or gas, etc.); to become distended or filled out; especially to undergo abnormal or morbid increase of size … as the result of infection or injury.”

As a noun, “swell” has meant, in general, an increase in size, elevation (as a hill), or volume or intensity (as in music). Long rolling waves in the sea are called “swells” (and, if they’re very deep and powerful, as from a big storm, they are known as “groundswells,” a term now used to mean powerful changes in public opinion). Figuratively, “swell” was used in the 18th century to mean “arrogant or pretentious behavior” (“The softness of foppery, the swell of insolence, the liveliness of levity.” 1751), and a bit later “swell” became more positive slang for a stylishly-dressed gentleman. From there “swell” took on the meaning of “a distinguished person; one who is good at something.”

This gave us, in the early 19th century, the use of “swell” as an adjective meaning “stylish, first-rate, distinguished” (“Why are we not to interfere with politics as much as the swell ladies in London?” B. Disraeli, 1845), a sense which was, over time, weakened to the point that “swell” came to mean simply “OK, fine, nice, pleasant” (“We’re eating at the lake; we could have a swell time.” Arthur Miller, 1947).

“Swell” in this diluted sense is now largely a US usage, and, this being the Age of Cynicism, it’s rarely used except in an ironic or sarcastic sense (“You left your wallet at home? Swell.”), which is too bad. There’s an uncomplicated charm to “swell” used sincerely.

Attorney at law

He’s over there, taking a deposition from a groundhog.

Dear Word Detective: I have long wondered what the word “attorney” actually means. It seems to be used interchangeably with the word “lawyer,” but why do we specify “attorney at law”? Is there such a thing as “attorney at medicine” or “attorney at accounting” or “attorney at landscaping”? What is the precise meaning of the word? — Christopher Valdez.

“Attorney at Landscaping” would be awesome. Actually, I’d settle for an “Attorney at Lawn,” some hotshot in a bespoke suit to mow the three acres we laughingly call a lawn. Spilling gasoline on his wingtips, smearing 10W-30 on his Hermes tie. Pro bono, of course.

It’s true that “attorney” and “lawyer” are generally considered synonyms here in the US (although lawyers almost universally seem to prefer being called “attorneys”). But ’twas not always so.

“Attorney” is derived from the verb “attorn,” meaning generally “to turn over to another person, to delegate, to transfer,” with the object of the verb being anything from real property or a contractual obligation to intangible items such as one’s allegiance to a country or ruler, an important point in feudal law (“The Gascoignes … had sent into England, to shew causes why they should not atturne to the Duke.” 1611). “Attorn” comes from the Old French “atourner” (“a” in this case meaning “to,” plus “tourner,” to turn), and first appeared in English in the early 13th century.

“Attorney” appeared in English about a century later, with the initial meaning of simply “delegated agent or deputy.” This broad sense is now obsolete, and was replaced by “private attorney” or “attorney in fact,” meaning a person authorized (by a written “power of attorney”) to make decisions, invest money, sue people, bid on eBay and other important tasks on behalf of another person. The designated “attorney in fact” in such cases does not need to be a lawyer (someone trained and certified in knowledge of the law).

Counterposed to the “private attorney” was the “public attorney,” or “attorney at law,” a qualified and recognized (usually by a bar association or other legal authority) agent capable of representing clients in judicial proceedings. In the US, attorneys are just attorneys, whether drawing up deeds or defending miscreants in court, but in Britain “attorneys” were responsible for soliciting clients and developing cases that would actually be presented by “barristers” in court, which brings us to an interesting story. Apparently attorneys managed to amass such a bad reputation very early on that “attorney” became synonymous with “knave” (“Vile Attornies, now an useless race.” Alexander Pope, 1733) and “swindler” (“Johnson observed, that ‘he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.'” J. Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791). It eventually got so bad that, by an act of Parliament in 1873, “attorney” as a title was abolished in Britain and the term was merged with “solicitor,” previously reserved for those who prepared cases for the civil Chancery court.

So, as to your question, you could use a grant of Power of Attorney to designate another person to do just about anything for you, from making your medical decisions to deciding where to plant shrubs. If you paid that person enough, they’d probably even agree to wear a t-shirt reading “Attorney at Landscaping,” and the more I think about that, the more I like it.


I wuz framed,

Dear Word Detective: There is a British expression for “setting someone up” to take the blame for some offense, which is “stitching them up.” I read your explanation for “grassing up” someone, which is the equivalent of snitching. But “stitching” is more like “framing” someone. I look forward to learning the origin(s) of this expression. — Scott Jones, Austin, Texas (really from Philadelphia).

Ah, Philadelphia. I’ve only been there a couple of times, but it made quite an impression. My primary takeaway, as the biz folk say, was that many of your hometown’s motorists have serious perceptual impairments. Some of them seemed to be trying to drive sideways.

I suppose, being the responsible sort, that I should recap my explanation of “grassing,” that British colloquialism for “snitching,” specifically acting as an informer for the police. While one might imagine a connection to the very old expression “snake in the grass” (meaning “a sly betrayer”), this “grass” is actually short for “grasshopper,” rhyming slang for “copper” (i.e., a cop), and “grassing” means working for (or actually being) the police. (Rhyming slang, common among the working classes of Britain and Australia, uses a system of rhymes to disguise the words actually meant.)

To “stitch” originally meant “to stab or pierce,” based on the noun “stitch,” which developed from the same Germanic roots that gave us “stick.” A “stitch” could be a wound (as from being poked with something sharp), a sharp pain in the side, a fit of laughing (e.g., “in stitches,” probably from the pain of prolonged laughing) or each loop left by a threaded needle as it passes through fabric, etc. “To stitch,” similarly, means “to fasten together with stitches,” as in making clothes from fabric or shoes from leather, or closing a wound by using surgical stitching. The phrase “to stitch up,” first appearing in the late 16th century, initially meant “to put together by sewing,” with the implication that the work is done in a hurry. Subsequent senses also carried overtones of emergency repair work or a “rush job,” as well as of restricting, restraining or closing off something (“I am sure he would rather have stitch’d up his lips, or bit off his tongue, than have spoken a word…” 1712).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “stitch-up” in the sense you mention as “An act of manipulating a situation in order to reach a desired outcome, especially by dishonorable or dishonest means, such as abuse of a position of power or influence; a conspiracy or plot, especially to incriminate a person on false evidence.” In common use since at least 1980, “stitch-up” (it’s usually hyphenated) is a bit broader than a “frame-up,” which is usually purely a question of false evidence and/or malicious prosecution. A “stitch-up” can also be a corrupt arrangement that thwarts justice but isn’t necessarily illegal (“[He] accused the Government of a ‘cynical stitch-up with BP management’ over the job losses and asset sales.” 1989).