Green’s Dictionary of Slang

swell adj.

also swellified
[swell n.1 ; 20C+ use mainly US]
(orig. US Und.)

1. excellent, wonderful, delightful; thus swell article n., anything of high quality; swell crib n., a genteel house; also ironic use.

[UK]Vaux Vocab. of the Flash Lang. in McLachlan (1964) 273: Any thing remarkable for its beauty or elegance, is called a swell article; so, a swell crib, is a genteel house [etc.].
[UK]Egan Life in London in Bk of Sports (1832) 7: His drag was also in unison with the rest of his character, by possessing much more of the swell look of a gentleman’s Four-in-hand, instead of a regular vehicle for public hire!
[UK]Vidocq Memoirs (trans. W. McGinn) III 109: If I am not so swell, I have my heart in the right place.
[UK]W.T. Moncrieff Scamps of London I ii: He shall have some swell clothes.
[UK]Hotten Dict. of Modern Sl. etc.
[UK]W.L. Rede ‘I’m a Young Man Most Highly Respectable’ 🎵 I want to be shown to each swellified haunt.
[US]Holmes Co. Republican (OH) 15 May 1/6: The ‘swellest’ thing in the way of [...] wedding cards.
[UK]‘Career of a Scapegrace’ in Leicester Chron. 17 May 12/1: I’ve found a skipper for the night, in a barn at the next farm house, a bit of a swell crib.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 12 July 15/2: A faultlessly attired Frenchman called at a swell residence and sent up by the maid a card bearing the name of an old French noble family.
[US]‘Billy Burgundy’ Toothsome Tales Told in Sl. 34: He leased a swell bachelor apartment.
[NZ]Truth (London) 18 June 1678/3: Slang terms: [...] slap-up, slick. splendiferous, stayer, stilton, stunning, swell [etc] .
[US]C. Connors Bowery Life [ebook] A million bones[...] Dat's a swell bunch uv money fer a guy to hev, an’ dat ain't no mistake.
[US]‘O. Henry’ ‘An Unfinished Story’ in Four Million (1915) 176: Ain’t you the lucky one? Piggy’s an awful swell; and he always takes a girl to swell places. He took Blanche up to the Hoffman House [...] where they have swell music, and you see a lot of swells. You’ll have a swell time, Dulce.
[US]E. O’Neill The Movie Man in Ten ‘Lost’ Plays (1995) 190: She had the swellest lamps I’ve ever seen on a dame.
[US]J. Lait ‘Canada Kid’ in Beef, Iron and Wine 1917 162: It’s a dirty shame after I done swell lifts for years and bulled the swellest bulls outta the Chief’s office, to get picked up by a flatfoot in harness.
[US]Van Vechten Nigger Heaven 156: Some swell affair! Olive cried.
[US]E. Caldwell Bastard (1963) 70: You’re the swellest little kid these old lookers ever looked at.
[US](con. 1900s–10s) Dos Passos 42nd Parallel in USA (1966) 384: She was a swell woman, her name was Mrs Olsen.
[UK]E. Waugh Vile Bodies 250: I was with the soldiers training at Salisbury Plain. That was swell.
[US]J.T. Farrell World I Never Made 270: The swellest millinery shop in Madison.
[UK]L. Ortzen Down Donkey Row 120: Say, you’re swell, sweetie.
[US]D. Maurer Big Con 80: He was one hell of a swell fellow.
[US]I. Wolfert Tucker’s People (1944) 32: So you want me to go and hand it over to you for a present? [...] Swell chance. You got a better chance to be Queen of England.
[US]‘Hal Ellson’ Tomboy (1952) 98: We had a swell time last night.
[US]J.P. Donleavy Fairy Tales of N.Y. II ii: It was swell.
[UK]K. Amis letter 20 June in Leader (2000) 602: What more natural than that I should be sendin a Leter to my Old yank Pall roo-kaiser what a Swel kidd he is and no Eror.
[UK]P. Theroux Picture Palace 114: The folks were in Florida ‘having a swell time’.
[US]C. Hiaasen Skin Tight 52: New York is a swell place to visit around Christmas time.
[UK]Indep. Rev. 4 Sept. 14: You’re looking swell.
[UK]M. Collins Keepers of Truth 269: He said I was a ‘swell’ reporter.

2. (also swellish ) pertaining to the upper classes.

[UK]Egan Boxiana I 5: [note] The swell tinman, hooper, was one of those ‘playthings’ of the great; and sheltered under the wings of nobility, he became pampered, insolent, and mischeivous.
[UK]Flash Mirror 4: The Shades, Strand. [...] This house is called The Darkeys. Swell men, wide awake customers, and mechanics of all sorts nightly congregate here.
[UK]C. Kingsley Two Years Ago I 27: ‘He’s [...] dressed in the distinguished foreigner style, with lavender kid-gloves and French boots.’ ‘Just like a swell pickpocket.’.
[UK]E. Eden Semi-Detached House (1979) 231: Harcourt is ‘swell’ enough for two.
[UK](con. 1840s–50s) H. Mayhew London Labour and London Poor I 423/2: I’ve seen the swell bosmen (farmers) buy the pills to give to the people standing about, just to hear the Crocus patter.
[UK]Sportsman (London) 31 July 4/1: Notes on News [...] [I]f such on-goings again take place, they will bind the swellish defendants over to keep the peace.
[UK]Five Years’ Penal Servitude 240: His ‘lay’ was St. Paul’s, and the swell churches and Exeter Hall.
[Aus]‘Rolf Boldrewood’ Robbery Under Arms (1922) 207: One evening Starlight and his two swell friends comes in.
[US]F. Hutcheson Barkeep Stories 20: ‘Muggins [...] says dat he was onc’t de boxin’ teacher fer a swell at’letic club’.
[Aus]H. Lawson ‘The Babies in the Bush’ in Roderick (1972) 407: The table was set for tea, and set in rather a swell style.
[US]H. Green Actors’ Boarding House (1906) 356: The blacksmith had chatted about the tenants. They were all rich, and ‘swell’.
[US]O. Johnson Varmint 58: I’ve got to make a swell call in Princeton to-morrow.
[UK]‘Sapper’ Final Count 785: Very likely he’ll be putting up at one of the swell hotels.
[US]D. Runyon ‘The Old Doll’s House’ in Runyon on Broadway (1954) 62: He loves to show off his shape in a tuxedo to the swell dolls.
[US]G.V. Higgins Patriot Game (1985) 124: Pretty soon Mrs. Moriarty who empties the bedpans down at the VA hospital is after you to get a full scholarship for her idiot daughter at some swell joint.

3. showy, ostentatious, fashionable, usu. as regards dress; also as adv., fashionably; thus swell mollisher, a very well-dressed woman etc.

[UK]Vaux Vocab. of the Flash Lang. in McLachlan (1964) 273: Any thing remarkable for its beauty or elegance, is called a swell article; so, [...] a swell mollisher, an elegantly dressed woman.
[Aus]G.C. Mundy Our Antipodes I 94: This very ‘swell’ member of the swell mob was transported for robbing his Majesty’s mail.
[Ind]E.R. Sullivan Bungalow or Tent 35: His use of the vernacular was interlarded with slang [...] He would [...] ask me if I wanted my ‘swell’ coat, when going out to dinner.
[UK]T. Taylor Ticket-Of-Leave Man Act III: Lark, lush, and a latch-key — a swell rig-out, and lots of ready in the pockets — a drag at Epsom and a champagne lunch on the hill!
[UK]J.K. Jerome Three Men in a Boat 45: We had been swearing for a whole week about the thing in an ordinary, middle-class way, but this was a swell affair.
[US]Ade Fables in Sl. (1902) 38: She was going to be Benevolent and be Dead Swell at the Same Time.
[US]B. Fisher A. Mutt in Blackbeard Compilation (1977) 84: The swell eastern fairies may tie her, but they’ll never beat her for opera garb.
[US]J. Lait ‘Canada Kid’ in Beef, Iron and Wine 1917 152: The firs’ good job I gets away wit’ is right in broad daylight in front of a swell hotel.
[US]N. Putnam West Broadway 99: ‘And remember, we are in the swellest joint in town!’.
[US]J. Black You Can’t Win (2000) 302: I’m not strong for eating in swell places.
[UK]Jennings & Madge May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 3:8: A very swell car rolled up containing 4 people.
[US] in C. Hamilton Men of the Und. 79: Swell theaters where the graft is good.
[US]B. Jackson Get Your Ass in the Water (1974) 131: You used to be one of the swellest dressed guys that lived in old New York.

In compounds

swell cove (n.) (also swell covey, swell kidder) [cove n. (1)]

a gentleman, a dandy.

[UK]Egan Life and Adventures of Samuel Hayward 52: If he did not keep a good look out, he would soon find that the swell cove had frisked his lob.
[UK]Egan Anecdotes of the Turf, the Chase etc. 19: And not one swell cove ...] / Shall lose the remembrance.
[US]Eve. Star (N.Y.) 28 Nov. 2/3: A ‘swell cove,’ lately from London Town, was arrested on board the steamboat Ohio, on Tuesday evening.
[UK] ‘Nix My Jolly Gals Poke Away’ in Gentleman’s Spicey Songster 16: No gal who ever flash’d her snatch, / Could ever bring more swell coves up to the scratch.
[US]Whip & Satirist of NY & Brooklyn (NY) 2 July n.p.: Among the ‘swell coves’ in town I know of no one equal to Lord Step— .
[UK]‘A Harrassing Painsworth’ in Yates & Brough (eds) Our Miscellany 22: Gaveston knocked three times, — not the ‘rat-tat’ of the postman, the ‘rat-tat-tat’ of the ‘swell cove’ (or gentleman), nor the humble ‘rat’ of the dun.
[Aus]Bell’s Life in Victoria (Melbourne) 3 Jan. 3/2: [A] young follow, an assigned servant to a swell covey there.
[UK]Wild Boys of London I 39/2: He went into that swell cove’s house.
[Scot]Fife Herald 18 Sept. 2/2: ‘Tip me that ere ’greement,’ says the swell cove.
[UK]‘The Jargon of Thieves’ in Derry Jrnl 8 Sept. 6/5: A well-dressed man is a ‘swell cove’.
[UK]G.R. Sims In London’s Heart 85: ‘But you’ve got some swell coves at work with you [...] Couldn’t they manage it for you?’ The Duke shook his head. ‘Not them. They’re all right with the fine gentleman blackleg business, but they won’t do dangerous work.’.
[US]H.L. Wilson Professor How Could You! 230: At first I thought you were some swell kidder (a fashionable hick) but I see you’re not.
swell mob (n.)

see separate entry.

swell thief (n.)

(UK und.) a thief (rarther than a confidence trickster) who works for the swell mob n. (2)

[UK]Sportsman 2/1 1 Sept. : Notes on News [...] A gentleman travelling by the night mail had for a compagnon de voyage a ‘swell thief,’ who, after explaining him several rascally theories, garrotted him.
swell woman (n.) (also swelly)

an élite prostitute; a woman kept by a rich lover.

[UK]‘Peter Pindar’ ‘The Lousiad’ Works (1794) I 239: ‘O Swelly, Swelly!’ cry’d the furious King.
[UK]‘Walter’ My Secret Life (1966) IV 750: Many swell-women also are there with, and sometimes without their protectors.