I’ve seen this question asked a few times before; I’ve even wandered why myself. So, I decided to take up the mantel and try and find out why people refer to free stuff as swag.
What does Swag mean?
First, let’s delve a little more into what swag actually means. Taking a look at Oxford Dictionary website, I searched for the term Swag and found it to mean a few different things. Meanings range through the following:
- “A curtain or piece of fabric fastened so as to hang in a drooping curve”
- “Money or goods taken by a thief or burglar.”
- “A very confident attitude or manner.”
- “A traveller’s or miner’s bundle of personal belongings.”
The funny part of these definitions is, that, the part that relates to free stuff as swag falls under number 2 in the list above and goes like this “Products given away free, typically for promotional purposes.” I’m not sure how products that are given away for free falls under goods taken by a thief, but let’s go with that flow for now.
The origin of Swag
Let’s go back a little further and try to find the origin of the word to see what it was first used for. So, sites would have you believe it was a code word made up in the 1960’s; but looking further, the word is much older than that. From the info I found, it is suggested that the first usage of this word was around the early 16th century and possible meaning ‘bulging bag’. Another site I read through referred to it as meaning “controlling influence.” With a first mention of the word, swag goes back to 1593. Timelines seem to suggest 16th century on both these sites, though with differencing meanings as to what it meant.
Further reading seemed to suggest that the use died out, then resurfaced in the 1800’s among British thieves as slang for stolen loot; this is probably why we see it used on bags for thieves in those older movies. Swag, the goods that were stolen.
None of this, to this point, refers to why swag is used for free, promotional items?
One answer could be…
I saw one reference that may give some answers. It refers to an entry in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1823), which has a couple of definitions of the word swag, which includes:
“A bundle, parcel or package; as a swag of snow&c. The swag, is a term used in speaking of any booty you have lately obtained, be it of what kind it may, except money, as where did you lumber the swag? That is, where did you deposit the stolen property? To carry the swag is to be the bearer of stolen goods to a place of safety. A swag of any thing signifies, emphatically, a great deal.”
It could be, that this last part of the sentence “A swag of any thing signifies, emphatically, a great deal.” Could be the key? Though, this is just my thought on that matter. It would seem to suggest that anything that signifies a great deal, something that you are potentially stealing a good deal away, would fit into the mold of free items given away by companies?
Looking up and trying to find out why items are called swag, there is just a mass amount of reference to swag as stolen goods and other references; none that actually gives a good reason to why we call freebies given away as swag. It, most likely, would be down to one person, or company, first calling it that.. then the name just carried on from there?
Again, this is just my hypophysis on this. It could be that there was more of a good reason? If you do find one then please, leave this in the comments. If you have any thoughts also, please leave a comment. I would love to find out why you think items are called swag. What is your hypophysis?