The Ancient Origins of Expression “I Swanee”

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My grandfather had an old expression he’d pull out of his vast Appalachian lexicon at moments of great surprise: “Well, I swanee…”

The first time I ever heard this term was when I was about seven years and all of our cattle escaped from our field through a hole in the fence. We spent what seemed to be all afternoon putting the three dozen angus back into the pasture.

After our job was complete and we sat down to eat supper that evening, we looked out in the yard only to see the entire herd on our front lawn — turns out, we had become so focused on fixing the fence that we had forgotten to shut the gate after we were done with our labors.

“Well, I swanee”, he declared, with a mixture of laughter and frustration in his tone.

In the years ahead, I would hear this same expression uttered at similar occasions from my friends and neighbors in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia – most of whom were considerably older than myself.

Not too long ago, I too pulled out this word while visiting some friends in Erie, Pennsylvania, and was immediately met with laughter and confusion — turns out, “swanee” is strictly a Southern-Mountain term.

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion among individuals who study regional dialects as to whether the actual expression is “I’ll swanny” or “I swanee”, but what is certain is that it is largely confined to the American Southeast and is increasingly running the risk of becoming an extinct expression.

Linguists agree that the expression was used primarily by religious people from more than a century ago who, instead of swearing, would offer up this mild oath.

“I’ll swanny” is an old English term which literally means, “I shall warrant.”

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I heard and used this term when I was growing up in Mingo County in the 1940s and ‘50s. Well, I swanee I haven’t heard it in a coon’s age.

  2. Have heard and used the term myself. Had friends and neighbors that would say “Well, I swan!” or would say “I do swan !” I always thought it was the past tense of swoon – swoon-swan-swan.
    Certainly not extinct here in Southwest Virginia but is becoming rarer to hear than in my past. I’m country and always will be. Even my daughters laugh at some things I say.

  3. I am from Mississippi and Alabama. What I remember is “ I Swan””. Kind of an astonishment, as if to say, “Well, look at that!” Have not heard the old saying in many years! Live in Tennessee now.

  4. From northern WV, and my grandma said “well, I swan” in place of “well, I’ll be damned!” I’m sure I heard it from others growing up in the 50s and 60s too, used in the same context, but always “swan”, never “swany” or “swanee”.

  5. I grew up on the high plains of western Kansas, and I remember the women of my small town saying, “Well I’ll swan t’ Goodness!” Which I took to mean they couldn’t swear because they were good Christians and were sworn to goodness. The men would just let ‘er rip!

    I think “l swanny” may be a form of this expression brought out west by migrants from Appalachia.

  6. I have wondered from where that expression came. My mother (now 93), who grew up in South Georgia, as did her family for many generations before her says, “I’ll swanny”. That I know of, we were never mountain people.

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