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In search of 'swag'

To me, it meant stolen goods; but what did it mean to my teen son?

By Robert Klose / February 28, 2013



How rich American slang has become. I feel as if I am hanging on for dear life as the language shifts and morphs around me, leaving me at sea in an increasingly unfamiliar vernacular. Such are the wages of the passing years.

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The latest fragment to arrive on the shores of my ignorance is "swag." When my 16-year-old son first uttered it, I was caught off guard. Here's what he said in reference to one of his friends: "Jesse's got swag." Now, in my experience, swag has two meanings: It refers to either stolen goods or a collection of goodies, such as the boxes of toiletries that colleges distribute to students at the beginning of the school year. But when I said to my son, "Where did Jesse get it?" he regarded me with a pained expression and asked, incredulously, "What are you talking about?"

When I explained what I understood "swag" to mean, Anton laughed – laughed! – at me. Then he shook his head. "OK," I said. "Then what does 'swag' mean?" His answer: "If you had it, you'd know."

There it was: I had to first have swag in order to know what it meant. A perfect Catch-22. So I sought another route to enlightenment – the seventh-grader I mentor in the local middle school. During one of our sessions, as we pored over his Spanish homework, I broached the delicate topic. "Do you know what swag is?" I asked him. "Sure," he said. "It means that you're cool."

Ah, so simple, but yet so proprietary that my own son couldn't admit me to the cabala of its meaning. Pressing my luck, I swallowed my dignity and quietly asked my mentee, "Do you think I have it?" Without taking his eyes from his work, he shrugged, "Yeah, you've got a lot of it."

Glowing, I communicated this intelligence to Anton at my first opportunity. "Ricky said I have swag," I announced as he hovered in front of the open fridge. "A lot of it."

Anton shook his head, as if he didn't know what he was going to do with me. "How old is Ricky?" he asked.

"Twelve."

Anton let out a deprecating breath. "Twelve?" he echoed. "What does he know!"

Hmm … swag was clearly in the eye of the beholder, and seemingly difficult to earn or get credit for. The next day, as I was chatting with my students in the college biology class I teach, I was moved to ask them about this word. They were, of course, familiar with it. Then one of them asked why I wanted to know. I didn't feel it appropriate to tell them how haunted I was by the realization that I might not possess swag, so I dodged the inquiry and commenced the lesson.

Well, no matter, I told myself. I had lived in blissful ignorance of my swaglessness until now, so I was sure I could continue on intact. But some perceptive, caring soul in my class must have detected my note of despondency in mentioning the elusive quality. The next day, when I came to school, there was a multicolored sticker affixed to my office door: I'VE GOT SWAG.

Need I mention that when I returned home I lay in anxious wait for Anton? As he came through the door, I accosted him with, "Someone put a sticker on my office door. It says, I'VE GOT SWAG." What I didn't add by way of emphasis was, "So take that!"

"It doesn't matter," said Anton as he headed for the fridge.

"Doesn't matter?" I already felt my heart sinking.

"No," he said offhandedly. "Swag is out. There's a new word now."

"A new word?" I echoed. "What is it?"

Turning to me, Anton's eyes were once again filled with pity. "You mean you don't know?"

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