Appalachia Appalachian Dialect


A swag above the house a ways

A few weeks back Ron Stephens left the following comment:

“I wondered the other day if “swag” is in the DSME. Where I’m from ‘swag’ means in general ‘a low place’ in the terrain. But that definition does not show up in a modern dictionary.”

I couldn’t wait to check out the dictionary to see what it had to say about swag. As usual the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English did not disappoint.

1 A low or level place on a ridge, a gap, as in Big Swag on Round mountain Ridge. Cf gap 1, saddle, sag 1.
1937 Hall Coll. Cades Cove TN = a level place on a ridge. (Labe Myers) 1939 Hall Coll. Mt Sterling NC There’s a bear waller in a swag under Spruce Mountain Tower where [the bears] use. 1956 Fink That’s Why 3 Here these lower places between peaks and along ridges are almost invariably known as gaps, with an occasional swag. 1960 Hall Smoky Mt Folks 19 Finally he managed to grab hold of [the turkey’s] legs, but as he did so, the turkey “riz” up into the air and carried him across a “swag” (gap) to the next mountain and courteously dropped him. 1970 Broome Earth Man 24 [W]e dropped our packs in the low swag and began ascending the steep sides of the “puzzle” mountain.


I’ve heard Pap use the word swag in the manner that Ron does my entire life. I’ve also heard The Deer Hunter use the word the same way for oh a good 30 years now. Sort of hard to tell from the photo took last spring, but there’s a swag on the right side of the photo.

So as you can see I know all about swags, but a turkey big enough to carry someone off a ways, I’m not sure I want to know anything about that 🙂



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  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    January 17, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    We had a “swag” on the wagon road between our house (that of my mother, Azie Collins Dyer, and my father, Jewel Marion Dyer), between our house and Grandpa Francis “Bud” Collins’s house, my mother’s father. Sometimes, as my younger brother Bluford and I were walking the woods-road, or wagon road, it was too rough for cars or trucks, and the bridge over the creek that ran in through Grandpa Collins’s farm did not have a bridge that would hold up even a wagon—and certainly not a car or truck—so even Daddy in our two-horse wagon, would have to ford the creek to get to Grandpa’s house. But at the “swag”, my younger brother and I would stop to play, like toss rocks into the forest, or throw and catch the ball we had with us going to Grandpa’s. I have heard “swag” for a low, level place in an otherwise hilly region all my life. Bluford and I loved the “swag” on the way to Grandpa’s house. But, with our “country party-line telephones” back then, our Aunts Ethel (for whom I am named), Avery, and India, and Grandpa, although he never acted “worried” about two grandkids that took too long between our house and their house to get there—and they would call our mother to see if we were coming! She would day, “They left an hour ago.” Then she learned we’d stopped at the swag to pass a little time loitering and playing before we went on to Grandpa Bud’s to spend the night! What carefree, happy, delightful days: childhood growing up in Appalachia. We had to begin hoeing corn and picking beans and stripping sorghum cane syrup as early as we could learn how, and we worked hard—but we also knew how to make up our own fun games, even if we did spend too much time playing in the “swag.”

  • Reply
    January 15, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    Asked my husband if he knew what a swag was ,,,he didn’t , and I didn’t know it referred to terrain, although we have seen in places near us land that looks like what is shown on the right side of the picture above. My immediate thought to the use of the word swag referred to a type of decorative valance over curtains… but now I want to look up swill, swig, and swale . When I think of gap, I think of Newfoundland Gap, of course you can have a gap in many different things.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    January 15, 2019 at 11:21 am

    Well, I should’ve looked up the “Big Swag” from the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English before saying I didn’t know of a named swag…..

    I had never heard of it, but hunted it down. It is on a lead which runs east from Greer Knob, which is about halfway between Buck Gap and Birch Spring Gap on the Twentymile Ridge (which could properly also be called a Lead or Divide) – which the Appalachian Trail meanders along. Big Swag is actually the name of a relatively low peak (about 3680 ft elevation), not the swag which lies just to its west. It is between Proctor Sang Branch – a feeder of Ekaneetlee Creek of Eagle Creek and Coldspring Branch, a feeder of Lost Cove Branch, also of Eagle Creek.

    I may be strange in this regard (well, in a lot of other ways, too), but I love just looking at maps of the Smoky Mountains and reveling in the names our forebears gave to places. In some cases – like Coldspring Branch (there is a Cold Spring Branch of neighboring Hazel Creek), the source name is fairly obvious. The same is true of Proctor Sang (ginseng) Branch. But how about Lost Cove? Did someone get lost in there – or go in there to get themselves lost? Ekaneetlee is a name with wonderful Cherokee and white settler history. It is unique, as far as I know, in that there is an Ekaneetlee Gap; on the TN side of the gap is Ekaneetlee Branch while on the NC side is Ekaneetlee Creek.

  • Reply
    January 15, 2019 at 11:00 am

    Hadn’t heard “swag” applied to this feature but use “swale” for it all the time. ‘Course, not to long ago, kids were hanging lots of chains and jewelry from their neck and calling it “swag”; then, there’s the “swags” used to decorate at Christmas and other festive times . . .

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    January 15, 2019 at 10:52 am

    There is a high-end lodging and dining facility called “The Swag” which sits just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Line along the Cataloochee Divide. The Cataloochee Divide Trail passes within 50 feet of it. Looks like they’ve got some rime up there this morning:

    But the lodge is not at a swag itself; it sits perched on a little knob, with a swag on one side of it and a gap on the other. The swag is to the east of it and Double Gap is to the west.

    As the above suggests, there is (in my wandering world) a nuanced difference between swags and gaps. A gap is a low place in a ridge line which is a natural – and therefore used – place for crossing from one stream drainage to another. Deep Gap, Low Gap, Deeplow Gap, Pretty Hollow Gap, Porters Gap, Double Springs Gap, Mule Gap, Cold Springs Gap – and on and on. All of these are named for former, and in most cases current, places where trails cross over – all within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and all are places that my feet walked and my mind’s eye still sees, even if the eyes on either side of my nose never do again.

    There may be a named place swag, but if so, it doesn’t come to mind.

    To go along with swags, you might want to have a conversation about leads and divides, and what distinguishes them.

  • Reply
    January 15, 2019 at 9:37 am

    Got alot of swags where i was raised.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    January 15, 2019 at 9:22 am

    I’m familiar with it too. When I was a kid we had a pasture with a pretty good swag in it. When my little horse would go down into the swag you would lose sight of her.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    January 15, 2019 at 8:58 am

    also a saddle!

  • Reply
    aw griff
    January 15, 2019 at 8:38 am

    Knew the word immediately. Didn’t know it was an Appalachian word. We have lots of swags in the hills of and the mountains of
    Swags can be good places to deer hunt. They, just like people, will pick the easiest way to cross a hill.

  • Reply
    Richard Shepherd
    January 15, 2019 at 8:28 am

    Glad to see I have another chance to make the fundraiser!….I tried to go through the country to get to Hayesville last Sunday and I got lost…..Wound up in Brasstown at the Campbell Fok School….My phone lost signal in that beautiful valley I was driving through and I wasn’t paying attention to the roads…..Anyway, I found 64 and went on up to Lowes in Murphy to get some screen door hooks for the shed doors.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    January 15, 2019 at 8:25 am

    I’ve heard swag and swale used synonymously.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    January 15, 2019 at 8:13 am

    I’m just like Mr. Kessler, the words ‘gap’ and ‘swag’ kinda run into each other. But, like him, in the way I think of them and use them a ‘gap’ is more than a swag. Of course that idea depends on each person’s version of ‘more than’. But though we might differ in that regard, we will still understand each other.

    Then there is ‘swag’s’ brother or sister, ‘swale’.

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney Jr
    January 15, 2019 at 7:32 am

    We never, as far as I can remember, associated gap and swag. A gap was a cleared passage usually across and over a hill or mountain. We also referred to an opening in a fence as a gap. That was one of those man made openings where the fence was attached to a pole that could be lifted and pulled back to make a “gap” for livestock to pass through or also a people passage.

    A swag was a low place in the terrain, road, animal’s back. Swag not to be confused with “a swig” which will sometimes make one think upon things such as swag.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    January 15, 2019 at 7:21 am

    I do not remember swag. To me that is what I hang over the door at Christmas. I do remember swill and wonder if it has the same meaning. My Grandmother used to talk about the swill over in the next county when she was out hunting wild herbs.

  • Reply
    clyde kessler
    January 15, 2019 at 6:21 am

    I still use the word “swag” for low place on a ridge, sometimes the same as gap, though I usually think of a gap as bigger, and sometimes steeper. Heard everyone around me including my parents, other relatives, and neighbors say swag.

    Clyde Kessler, originally from Franklin County, VA

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