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.

6 responses to “swarthy

  1. I checked in one of the best-known Russian-Russian dictionaries (Ozhegov and Shvedova, 1992). It has a pithy definition of the adjective smuglyj (смуглый) from which the word ‘smuglyanka’ is derived, to wit: “Смуглый. О коже лица …: темноватой окраски” = “Concerning the skin of the face . . .: of a darkish hue.” — No distinction between men’s and women’s faces. In my experience, translations of ‘standards’ (titles of novels, songs, operas, and so on) often, indeed usually, remain never up-dated from the first (often by now archaic) printed attempts — which in this case may have been in the 1930s (the Red Army Choir first performed in Western Europe in 1937) or surely when their first recordings were sold (in the 1950s?).

  2. Swarthy men, but dusky maidens. Is there a word for an adjective-noun pair that has become a cliché, such as ‘luxury yacht’?

  3. I first learnt “swart” from Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan novels. Burroughs, a confirmed anglophile, used it often to describe evil-doers of the caucasian persuasion; while never overt, the subtext referenced woggery and all it implied about imperial Britain.

  4. Above I say “What ethnic groups have been thought of as swarthy, by the way? Generally those surrounding the Mediterranean: Spaniards, (southern) Italians, Greeks, Turks, Arabs.” Of course that’s really too narrow, since swarthy at root means ‘black’ or ‘dark’ and so has also been applied on the one hand to Africans and on the other hand even to Englishmen of dark complexion. I happen to have ready to hand an easily searchable collection of texts from the 1700s and 1800s, and so I did a little looking to see who it was applied to. Here are some quotations I’ve found; you will see that the range of its application includes Moors, Jews, Gipsies, darker-skinned Spaniards, “Indians” of the New World, and dark-complected Englishmen – in other words, anyone who is black-skinned, olive-skinned, or even just a bit darker than the average denizen of Western Europe:

    Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)
    • “they were all of the swarthy race of the Moors”
    • “The mixture of Somatic and German blood had contributed to improve the features of the Alani, to whiten their swarthy complexions, and to tinge their hair with a yellowish cast, which is seldom found in the Tartar race.”
    • “the black, or swarthy, natives of the desert” [Sahara]
    • “the blue-eyed warriors of Germany formed a very singular contrast with the swarthy or olive hue which is derived from the neighborhood of the torrid zone”
    • “the swarthy Tartar”
    • “the curled hair and swarthy complexion of Africa no longer disfigure the most perfect of the human race”
    • “the swarthy tribes of Moors and Getulians”

    Charlotte Lennox, The Lady’s Museum (1760)
    • [“The MANNERS and CUSTOMS of the Inhabitants of AMBOYNA”:] “The inhabitants of these islands are of a middle stature, rather lean than fat, and extremely swarthy”

    Henry David, An Historical Account of all the Voyages Round the World, Performed by English Navigators (1773)
    • [“Indians” in Puerto Seguro, “this southern part of California”:] “Our ship was in an instant full of these swarthy gentlemen quite naked”

    Tobias Smollett, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751)
    • “they stood like so many swarthy Moors”

    Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819)
    • [“deputies of colour” from St. Domingo:] “They were six in number; of a sallow or swarthy complexion, but yet it was not darker than that of some of the natives of the south of France.”
    • “two attendants, whose dark visages, white turbans, and the Oriental form of their garments, showed them to be natives of some distant Eastern country . . . their swarthy arms and legs”
    • [addressing a Jew:] “I will have thy swarthy hide stript off, and tanned for horse-furniture.”

    Henry Hunt, Memoirs of Henry Hunt (1820)
    • [Rev. Thomas Griffith, of Andover:] “was a muscular, swarthy, dark-looking person”

    Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk (1796)
    • [a Gipsy:] “The swarthy Prophetess”

    Leigh Hunt and James Henry, Stories from the Italian Poets, with Lives of the Writers (1846)
    • [Dante Alighieri:] “He was so swarthy”; “the swarthy Florentine”

    Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (1837)
    • “a column of Marseillese, slight, swarthy, party-coloured, in patched clothes”

    George Borrow, The Bible in Spain (1842)
    • [Sergeant Garcia, of the Granja, near Madrid] “the swarthy sergeant”
    • “the black hair and swarthy visages which in general distinguish the natives of this province” [Andalusia]
    • “the swarthy and turbaned Moor”
    • [Gibraltar] “men of the rock, burly men in general, with swarthy complexions and English features”
    • “On again addressing my swarthy friend, and enquiring whence he came, he replied, that he was born at Mogadore, in Barbary, but had passed the greatest part of his life at Gibraltar.”

    William H. Ainsworth, Windsor Castle (1843)
    • “his skin was swarthy as that of a gipsy”

    Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)
    • [“Indians” near Buenos Aires] “their black hair blowing across their swarthy faces”

    Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1839)
    • “a man was sentenced to die the same death, who was a gipsy too; a sunburnt, swarthy fellow, almost a wild man”

    Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
    • [Mr. Rochester:] “His dark eyes and swarthy skin and Paynim features suited the costume exactly: he looked the very model of an Eastern emir, an agent or a victim of the bowstring.”

  5. Johanna-Hypatia

    My branches speak Italian,
    English, German, Basque, Castilian,
    Mountain speech to highlanders,
    Ocean tongues to islanders,
    To Finn, and Lap, and swart Malay,
    To each his bosom secret say.

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