Green’s Dictionary of Slang

swell n.1

[for the connoisseur of such gradations, the swell differed from the older aristocracy in the need and capacity for display; the aristocracy had position but no fashion, the swell had fashion and used it to win position, but his social position might be fractionally less grand. In time he, or at least his children, might attain the absolute social peaks]

1. [late 18C+] an aristocrat, a sophisticated, stylish, rich person; thus fem. var. swelless.

2. [early 19C] a good time, a spree.

3. [early 19C–1910s] the outstanding member of any profession or occupation; or fine example of an object.

4. [mid-19C–1900s] used ironically as one who unsuccessfully emulates the style and manners of sense 1.

5. [late 19C] (US) arrogance, cockiness.

6. [1920s] (US) a good-looking young woman.

In derivatives

swellish (adj.)

1. [mid-19C–1910s] fashionably dressed; of clothes, fashionable; also as adv., fashionably.

2. [19C–1910s] aristocratic, upper-class; characteristic of a gentleman.

3. [1920s] pleasing.

swellishly (adv.)

fashionably, aristocratically.

In compounds

swell’s lush (n.) [lush n.1 (1)]

[mid–late 19C] (Aus.) champagne.

Swell Street (n.)

see separate entry.

In phrases

chuck a swell (v.)

[1930s] to spend extravagantly.

cut a swell (v.) (also act the swell)

[19C] to swagger.

swell hung in chains (n.)

[mid-19C] a rich or ostentatious man given to wearing quantities of jewellery.

swell it (v.)

[late 19C] to behave or pose as an aristocrat or a rich man.