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. an aristocrat, a sophisticated, stylish, rich person; thus fem. var. swelless.

[UK] ‘Dog & Duck Rig’ in Holloway & Black I (1975) 81: What a swell by the side of your blowing.
[US] ‘Flash Lang.’ in Confessions of Thomas Mount 18: A gentleman, a swell.
[UK]G. Hangar Life, Adventures and Opinions II 81: [To] denote a good education, and shew that you have kept good company, be mindfull of the following, which you will apply as the conversation will admit you [...] ‘That’s the barber,’ ‘Go it,’ ‘The tippy and the twaddle,’ ‘What a swell’.
[Aus]Vaux Vocab. of the Flash Lang. in McLachlan (1964) 273: swell: a gentleman; but any well-dressed person is emphatically termed a swell, or a rank swell. […] Sometimes, in alluding to a particular gentleman, whose name is not requisite, he is styled, the swell, meaning the person who is the object of your discourse, or attention; and whether he is called the swell, the cove, or the gory, is immaterial.
[UK] ‘Sprees of Tom, Jerry and Logick’ in C. Hindley James Catnach (1878) 123: Come all ye swells and sporting blades who love to see good fun.
[UK]Byron Don Juan canto XI line 133: Poor Tom was once a kiddy upon the town, A thorough varmint, and a real swell, Full flash, all fancy.
[Aus]N.-Y. National Advocate 22 Aug. 2/2: Police. – Three swells were brought up early in the morning charged with wrenching one of the iron railings from the Park.
[UK] ‘Life In London’ in Swell!!! or, Slap-Up Chaunter 11: To be a regular first-rate swell, / A flaming out-and-outer.
[Aus]Sydney Herald 18 June 4/1: Lord how you does bamboozle them ere flats and swells.
[UK] ‘Man About Town’ Nobby Songster 24: Now all you lads who cut a dash, and wish to ape the swell, / Be sure at first you have the cash, then you may do it well.
[UK]‘Ducange Anglicus’ Vulgar Tongue 38: He told me as Bill had flimped a yack and pinched a swell of a fawney. [Ibid.] 45: A decent allowance made to Seedy Swells, Tea Kettle Purgers, Head Robbers, and Flunkeys out of Collar.
[UK]G.A. Sala Quite Alone III 82: She says she was married to a tremendous swell, an Englishman.
[UK]Empire (Sydney) 27 July 5/5: He told the Sydney swells — Who chaffed him most severe.
[SA] in H.A. Roche Trek in the Transvaal (1878) 156: The Zulus are the ‘big swells’ amongst the Kafirs.
[UK]Five Years’ Penal Servitude 235: Once we had a rare blow-out at some swell’s place at Aigburth.
[UK] ‘’Arry on Pooty Women’ Punch 21 Sept. in P. Marks (2006) 149: The Swellesses likes to be looked at in attitoods yum-yum.
[UK]London Dly News 11 Jan. 2/1: The genus ‘swell’ is almost absent [...] the crowed appears to be made up of dissipated clerks and young tradesmen.
[UK]Kipling Civil and Military Gazette 7 May in Pinney (1987) n.p.: The official swells at the head of affairs say they are willing to deal promptly and severely with any cases.
[Aus]‘Rolf Boldrewood’ Robbery Under Arms (1922) 52: ‘I see your argument,’ he said, quiet and reasonable, just as if I had been a swell like himself.
[UK]G. du Maurier Trilby 273: Poor Humpty Dumpty! Such a swell as he once was!
E.W. Rogers [perf. Marie Lloyd] The Barmaid 🎵 See the swell at half past one / ‘A bittah beah a cuwwant bun’.
[Aus]Truth (Sydney) 5 May 5/6: She never went by the name of Seymour until she [...] did business with the Sydney swells.
[US]E. Townsend Chimmie Fadden and Mr Paul 54: Real-ting swells like Miss Fannie takes deir punishment smiling.
[US]‘O. Henry’ ‘Strictly Business’ in Strictly Business (1915) 12: A Fifth Avenue society swelless.
[Aus]Truth (Perth) 1 Oct. 4/7: You will ‘jerry’ when they tell, / Bishop Wright, / Of some ‘silvertail’ or ‘swell’ / Who got ‘tight,’ .
[UK]J. Buchan Greenmantle (1930) 181: I judged he was a great swell, for his voice became reverential at the mention of him.
[Ire]Joyce Ulysses 713: Let them get a husband first thats fit to be looked at and a daughter like mine or see if they can excite a swell with money that can pick and choose whoever he wants.
[US]W.R. Burnett Little Caesar (1932) 111: Had some pictures of the swells, see, and the dumps where they live.
[US](con. 1910s) J.T. Farrell Young Lonigan in Studs Lonigan , 1936 11: Prairie Avenue was a tony street where all the swells lived.
[Aus]‘Banjo’ Paterson Shearer’s Colt 8: Dear Boy was so-called because he aped the swell and could worm himself into the good hotels where the rich men were to be found.
[UK]M. Marples Public School Slang 16: blood, buck, swell. These three words, all used in standard English of the same type of young man [...] are also synonymous in school slang, where they denote boys who are prominent among their fellows generally through athletic prowess.
[US]W.R. Burnett Asphalt Jungle in Four Novels (1984) 132: They know all the swells.
[Aus]D. Stivens Jimmy Brockett 36: Her people were swells and I often wondered how she came to hook up with the old man.
[UK]I. & P. Opie Lore and Lang. of Schoolchildren (1977) 75: Toff, swell, snob, nob, big-wig.
[UK](con. 1920s) J. Sparks Burglar to the Nobility 17: Park Lane [...] they were the houses of swells and millionaires then, not offices.
[US]E. Grogan Ringolevio 74: The uniqueness of Kenny’s position as a member of a student body of swells.
[US]M. Braun Judas Tree (1983) 12: Tonight he’d flaunted her before the society swells.
[UK]Indep. on Sun. Culture 23 Jan. 12: Some inebriated swell.
[US](con. 1962) J. Ellroy Enchanters 75: Big-ticket sedans disgorged westside swells.

2. a good time, a spree.

[US]Commercial Advertiser (N.Y.) 1 Feb. 2/3: On Saturday night five Corinthians sallied from the Lafayette Theatre, determined in true ‘Tom and Jerry’ style, to have a ‘swell’.

3. the outstanding member of any profession or occupation; or fine example of an object.

[UK]T. Moore ‘Milling Match’ in Farmer Musa Pedestris (1896) 86: Poor Johnny Raw! what madness could impel / So rum a Flat to face so Prime a Swell.
[UK]Swell’s Night Guide 58: I drew a swell of a skin coming down – twenty cooter.
[US]F. Hutchison Philosophy of Johnny the Gent 19: [of an actor] [T]he stuff the swell posin’ legit lets loose off is a little high fer me.
[UK]J. Buchan Thirty-Nine Steps (1930) 14: My friend was a great swell, with his nerves pretty bad from overwork, who wanted absolute rest and peace.
[UK]J. Buchan Mr Standfast (1930) 533: He’s a great swell at writing books, but he’s no earthly use at handling the telegraph.

4. used ironically as one who unsuccessfully emulates the style and manners of sense 1.

[UK]‘The great black fight at Bosreegaum’ in Oriental Sporting Mag. June 1828 to June 1833 (1873) I 121/1: The Mussaulchee was escorted by the cadgers, costermongers, prime slavey swells, and nothing-to-do lootchas of every sect in Camp.
[UK]Thackeray Pendennis I 30: A youth [...] now appeared before Pen in one of those costumes to which the public consent [...] has awarded the title of ‘Swell.’ [...] you would hesitate to say which character in life he most resembled, and whether he was a boxer en goguette, or a coachman in his gala suit.
[UK]J.E. Ritchie Night Side of London 173: I paid sixpence and went with the operative swells into the gallery.
Illus. Times 11 Jan. 12/2: Hair, the sleek, dirty, undertucked crop of the honest rookery ‘swell’.
[UK]J. Greenwood Seven Curses of London 317: Brazen-faced women [...] bestowing their blandishments on ‘spoony’ young swells of the ‘commercial’ and shopman type.
[Aus]Bell’s Life in Sydney 24 Sept. 3/2: After a diligent fumbling of pockets between the two ‘swells,’ a veritable ‘tanner’ was found and the cost of their liquor duly liquidated.
[US](ref. to 1850s) Sun (NY) 25 Oct. 20/1: The ‘Bowery swell’ of those days [i.e. 1850s] wore a ‘black silk hat’ [...] and had a cigar in [...] his mouth [...] He walked with a peculiar swagger and swing, and was never caught napping’.
[Aus]‘Price Warung’ Tales of the Early Days 244: Wot d’yer mean, my fine swell, disturbin’ the gang at this hour?
[Aus]H. Lawson ‘Bards Who Lived at Manly’ in Roderick (1967–9 II) 168: And we were glad at Manly, / All unaware of ‘swells’.
[US](con. 1900s) S. Lewis Elmer Gantry 107: Oh, you’re a fine lot of educated swells, but you’ll find out where that rubbish gets you.

5. (US) arrogance, cockiness.

[US]Nat. Police Gaz. (NY) 25 Sept. 6/4: [headline] too fresh for anything / [...] / Had All the Swell taken Out of Him by a Rude Bar-Tender.

6. (US) a good-looking young woman.

[US]E. Caldwell Bastard (1963) 70: I could tell you was a swell in the dark.

In derivatives

swellish (adj.)

1. fashionably dressed; of clothes, fashionable; also as adv., fashionably.

Tripod 1 Apr. 301: Who of mishap could be afraid, / When clad in such apparel swellish?
[UK] ‘C–--!’ in Bang-Up Songster 12: With swellish togs and blunt to range.
[Ire] ‘Ax My Eye’ Dublin Comic Songster 101: I sports a hellish swellish / Coat, vot stands the veather’s rubs.
[UK]Sussex Advertiser 22 Aug. 4/3: .
[Scot] ‘’Andsome Macintosh’ in Laughing Songster 25: The svellish Gent, vith the light drab Macintosh.
[UK]P.H. Emerson Signor Lippo 63: The trainer was talking to a few swellish dressed men.
[US]E.L. Warnock ‘Terms of Approbation And Eulogy’ in DN IV:i 22: swellish. Elegant, stylish, first-rate. [...] ‘They have a swellish auto.’.

2. aristocratic, upper-class; characteristic of a gentleman; thus do the swellish, to pose as an aristocrat.

[UK]Morn. Chron. 6 Dec. 3/5: Williams was swellish in the extreme, and he was togged out accordingly [...] white topper on, a prime fancy upper Benjamin, a blue bird’s-eye silk fogle round his squeeze.
[UK] ‘A Chaunt by Slapped-up Kate and Dubber Daff’ in Swell!!! or, Slap-Up Chaunter 47: [He] looks the Corinthian — swellish and prime.
[Ire] ‘Four And Ninepenny Hat’ Dublin Comic Songster 102: No matter man or master, / A guinea was the lowest charge / For a swellish-looking castor.
[UK]Era (London) 4 June 4/1: I was mightily tickled at seeing the ‘touts’ doing the swellish so extensively [...] all arter the same game, twigging the flats.
[UK]Kendal Mercury 3 Apr. 6/2: Ye knows it isn’t swellish to have von’s tripes blown out like the rum-cull.
[UK]Sussex Advertiser 22 Aug. 4/3: A young man with a ‘swellish’ make up, styling himself ‘The Earl of Cambridge’ [...] began a career of [...] extensive swindling.
[UK]Western Times (Devon) 23 May 8/5: The Yeoman Cavalry, or according to the more swellish designation, the North Devon Hussars.
[US]Lincoln Co. Leader (NM) 16 June 3/3: Then this bummer still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, / By the quaint and swell gravity of the physiog he wore.
[UK]Era (London) 5 June 7/2: Augustus [...] is a ‘swellish’ dabbler in art, an extravagant young dog, a man of clubs and cards.
[UK]Daily Gaz. for Middlesborough 17 June 4/2: He was a swellish looking little man.
[Scot]Eve. Teleg. 19 May 5/5: He had a swellish appearance — frock coat and ‘silk’ hat.
[Aus]Truth (Sydney) 15 Jan. 9/3: Them [i.e. women] what’s a trifle swellish, / Seem to do just as they please.

3. pleasing.

[UK]Nottingham Eve. Post 18 Apr. 9/1: [advert] Little drops of Yorkshire relish that’s what makes things taste so swellish.
swellishly (adv.)

fashionably, aristocratically.

[UK]Leeds Times 22 Oct. 6/2: Among the visitors [...] was a swell mobsman ‘swellishly’ dressed —up to the latest fashion.
[Scot]Edinburgh Eve. News 5 Oct. 3/4: The Glasgow police have made an important cpature of five swellishly-dressed men, who alleged to be wanted for a series of thefts.

In compounds

half-and-half swell (n.)

an idle young man, pretending to upper-class society.

[UK]J. Wight Mornings in Bow St. 294: [T]hat description of bipeds commonly called ‘Lobby Loungers,’ or ‘Box-Lobby-loungers,’ or ‘Half-and-half swells;’ that is to say, half sharp and half flat [...] half bully and half boor in plain terms, idle young men.
Swell Street (n.)

see separate entry.

In phrases

chuck a swell (v.)

to spend extravagantly.

[US]D. Runyon ‘Snatching of Bookie Bob’ in Runyon on Broadway (1954) 118: Many a party who is [...] chucking quite a swell is nothing but the phonus bolonus and does not have any real scratch.
cut a swell (v.) (also act the swell)

to swagger.

[UK] in Spirit of Public Journals IV 61: To see our young lords and our young gentlemen ‘cutting a swell’, as the fashionable phrase is .
[UK]Egan Anecdotes of the Turf, the Chase etc. 183: Look about you, and see what a swell you’re cutting before the public, attended to church by two servants in livery.
[UK] ‘For I Will Prig For Ever’ in Flare-Up Songster 19: Again He’ll cut a dash, / At play, or prize ring act the swell.
‘Sich a Gitting Up Stairs’ in Coll. American Songs n.p.: To Washington I go, dare I cut a swell.
[Ire]‘The Four and Nine’ in Dublin Comic Songster 127: With an air of self-delight, I placed it on my sconce, / I thought myself all right, I'll cut a swell for once.
‘We’re All Cutting’ in Granite Songster 35: Behold him when on horseback how he cuts away with vigor; / And as along he's walking he seems to ask each belle, / O hang it, charming creature, don't you think I cut a swell.
‘Doing the Grand’ in Maclagan’s Musical Age Songster 30/2: Yet it was a lovely dickey, oh, hi ho! / ’Twould do as well to cut a swell.
[UK]Stephens & Yardley in Little Jack Sheppard 42: 🎵 Farewell to the well known Old Bailee / Where I used to cut such a swell.
swell it (v.)

to behave or pose as an aristocrat or a rich man.

[Scot] ‘The Spooney Velveteen’ in Laughing Songster 49: A regular spooney in Glasgow Town, / To get himself into a little renown, / Determined to ‘swell it’ – and soon he was seen / Sporting a frock coat of Velveteen.
[Aus]‘Rolf Boldrewood’ Robbery Under Arms (1922) 79: Jim and me could see how Starlight had been working the thing to rights while he was swelling it in the town.
[US]F. Packard White Moll 289: There’s no chance of fixing Cloran so’s you can swell it around in the open again.