My wife and I went to hear the Red Army Choir the other night, and one of the songs they sang was “Smuglyanka,” the title of which they translated as “The Swarthy Girl.”
Swarthy girl. I understood what that meant, of course, but I found it a bit odd, because to me swarthy has something of a masculine air to it, and at the very least it seems to carry a heft (and muscle and perhaps hairiness) unexpected with girl. It may be from the echoes of sword and various swa words such as swashbuckling, swat, swarm, etc. (though note swallow and sway and a few others that may not have such a tone), but I really think it’s from the contexts in which I’ve generally seen it and the particular persons typically described as swarthy.
If we look at the common collocates of swarthy in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, we see some indication: by a fair amount, the most common collocate is man. Men is also common. Skin, hair, and face are all in there, of course; so are bearded, fellow, and guy. And there are various racial groups mentioned. But not any specifically feminine terms.
It’s not that one simply may not use swarthy with a female; Tennyson did – “A queen, with swarthy cheeks and bold black eyes.” But swarthiness seems to hint at a certain swordworthiness and, more to the point, the darkness of skin that it is associated with figured for a long time in English-language fiction as a characteristic of a foreigner either romantic (thus male, because female objects of attraction were long expected to be fair) or threatening (and so again male, typically).
What ethnic groups have been thought of as swarthy, by the way? Generally those surrounding the Mediterranean: Spaniards, (southern) Italians, Greeks, Turks, Arabs. Is it a racist or politically incorrect term? It seems that depends on whom you ask. It has indeed historically often been used as part of racial stereotyping and “othering,” but such usage does not invariably taint a word, especially not if it has enough positive or neutral uses.
We know that among the paler Europeans darkness of complexion was long looked on, um, darkly, and such denigration could be applied surprisingly broadly. Consider this quotation from Ben Franklin: “in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.”
Regardless of whether you find it racist or not, you almost certainly will find it archaic, literary, poetic or old-fashioned. And it is an old word, with long roots in English. It comes from swart, which was the originally more common word in English for “black” – all the other Germanic languages still have cognates of this for their word for “black” (e.g., German schwarz). But English has, as it sometimes does, been a bit perverse and gone with a different word – a word just as old, mind you, but out of step with the neighbours: black, of course.
Only swarthy doesn’t mean “black”, quite. Just dark. When not referring to people, it may describe a swamp or a shaded sward or (as Macaulay did) “bleak Hampstead’s swarthy moor.” When referring to people, it may well also refer to a “swarthy moor” – meaning Muslim. But in any case it means more olive-skinned and dark-haired.
And yet if I say Swarthmore (a name directly related to swarthy moor), you’ll probably think of a college full of rich white girls – and guys.* Go figure. Such small changes can put you into a whole new set of associations…
*Its student body is surely more diverse now. But established images take longer to change.