Appalachian Dialect



My Father’s Day post about Pap swarping the car over into the briars brought more than a few comments and emails about the word swarp.

I could have sworn I used the word in one of my Appalachian Vocabulary Tests but can’t find it. I did use the word in this post about Woody Frankum Ceilings.

I checked out my Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English to see what it had to say about the word swarp.

A verb to beat, strike; to move about unsteadily. Cf swap B, warp 2.
1982 Maples Memories 29 We would take an old cane pole, swarp [a bat] down, hold him by the wings, and see his little snapping teeth. 1989 Oliver Hazel Creek 31 He cut a large pole and when they would get too close to him he would lash out at them (“swarp” the ground) with the pole to drive them away. 1993 Ison and Ison Whole Nuther Lg 66 = move about unsteadily, from one side to another.
B noun A blow, hit.
1982 Maples Memories 32 Dad said that he and a friend were riding one day, and the friend, acting smart, reached over and gave Dad’s mule a swarp across the back.


I’ve heard swarp used all my life and use it myself in 2 distinct meanings.

  1. As the dictionary pointed out-a blow or a hit. You can swarp someone with a belt or other item and you can also be swarped by a cow tail, a limb, or other item.
  2. The other usage is like what I was trying to describe about Pap. Pap was driving the car and he swarped (swerved) out of the road and then pulled the car right back into the road. You might say something like: “He was out there mowing the grass and accidentally made one good swarp through his mama’s flowers.”

The second usage I shared may have come from the first usage from the dictionary: to move about unsteadily. Or it could have come from a corruption of the word “swarth: a row of mown hay or grass, the space covered by a sweep of the scythe” (Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English).

After I started thinking about the word I did a little googling around. I found an interesting and totally ridiculous piece about the word swarp and it’s usage in the book Appalachia Inside Out Volume 2 Culture and Custom. The book is basically a collection of different writings about or related to Appalachia. I happen to have the book on my bookshelf, but you can read the piece in its entirety here.

The outright ugliness in the writing makes me want to try to weave swarp into every last conversation I have!

Appalachia Inside Out Volume 2 Culture and Custom – An Appalachian Relic: Notes on “Swarp”

Not to be outdone, Professor Pissel Bush, in his work Why We Don’t Use Words We Never Use, a popular revision of the earlier Wamblies, Git-Fidgets, and Poltroons, by Asa Middlehigh, the famous rival of Noah Webster, states:

Though not a popular word, swarp nevertheless has enjoyed occasional currency in the isolated coves of Eastern Kentucky, where wild groups of snake-handlers, ginseng-hunters, and gum-cutters, as well as other unsavory types such as versifiers, prevaricators, and the inventors of riddles, use it as a euphemism for being “shitte [sic] drunk.”

And in a footnote, Bush adds, somewhat moralistically:

The word, with its sweet sibilant beginning, promising ease and beauty and grace, yet ends with one of the harshest sounds available in English: so too do the practitioners of swarping descend from the deceptive silken heights of their drunkenness to the foul charnel-house cellar of despair and crapulous degradation. “Swarping” is, indeed, a devil’s word, and as such belongs in no polite vocabulary.

Geesh! He doesn’t even like the letters in the word! And who wouldn’t want to be an inventor of riddles or a versifier or spend their days in the woods hunting ginseng!

The piece goes on with much of the same insanity. But ends with a fictional story that I like:

Young Josiah Leathers, the first Kentuckian to graduate from Heidelberg University in Germany with a Ph.D., was apparently a troublesome chap in his youth. Sneaking from the dormitory one frosty night, he made his way down the right fork of Hardscrabble to the Drought County Courthouse. No one was about, and the boy eager to express his disdain towards those who supported the dismantling of his vocabulary, took from his slingpoke a cold chisel and hammer. Working swiftly, he carved the word “swarp” into the soft sandstone of the Court House steps.

Confronted the next morning by the director of the Settlement School, a sour-spittled woman with a long habit of chastity Leathers defiantly cried, “I’ll not unswarp myself for no quare woman, nor for the Lord God Hisself of these hills.”

His recalcitrance won for Leathers the dubious distinction of being thrown into a sticker bush just outside the dining hall by a group of reactionary scholars led by a noxious youth named Dewars.

The Settlement School’s campaign against “swarp” was, despite Leather’s considerable efforts, mostly successful. In most parts of eastern Kentucky today, the word is no longer heard, retired at last as a quaint archaism in the works of local yarn-spinners.

Well I certainly don’t consider myself a lower class of people, nor does any of that drivel about drunkenness and cellar of despair fit my persona. I guess I could be consider a yarn-spinner with a mighty big stretch, but that’s not really me either.

I believe like Young Josiah, I’ll disregard their silly line of thinking and take a vow to never unswarp myself.


*Source: Appalachia Inside Out Volume 2 Culture and Custom – An Appalachian Relic: Notes on “Swarp”


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  • Reply
    May 3, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    I’ve heard the word swarp all my life. Mom used to threaten to swarp me with a limb when I acted up. Dad swarped at spider webs when we were going through the woods. In those same woods we each accidentally swarped the other on occasion when we turned a pushed-aside limb loose too soon. To me, swarp has generally meant something going on in a swinging, circular motion. Never heard it used to describe drunken or lurching behavior.

  • Reply
    Betty Newman
    August 2, 2016 at 10:46 am

    The definition you found makes me want to sayn “Oh good grief!” Swarp is about as innocent a word as you could use. I use it a lot, and in thinking about how I’d define it – I guess it would be “a swipe without intent”. For instance, my husband will often pick at me as he goes by and I’ll swipe backhanded at him, never intending to really hit him. I just “swarp” at him. Or if he’s in the tractor and I’m standing on the drawbar behind him, he might say, “Watch out. Don’t let this branch swarp you in the face”.
    You know – to be so educated, some of those dictionary folks ain’t got a lick of sense!

  • Reply
    Sam Ensley
    June 27, 2015 at 12:18 am

    I agree with most of the above definitions of “Swarp” except those which spoke of it being an unsteady movement. The only definition I can answer comes from experience and usage. I would say it is moving an object for a half-circle, (or less depending upon the distance from the start to the target). It does not have to have a target, only a motive. Consider the usage a friend of mine used in telling about avoiding a wreck.
    Driver: He just pulled right out in front of me.
    Listener: What did you do?
    Driver: I didn’t have time to think. I just give it that old double-handed, cross-over swarp.”

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    June 26, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    I can honestly say that, to the best of my aging recollection, I have never heard, read or said or used “swarp”. It’s a new word to me.

  • Reply
    June 26, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    G’day, Tipper,
    I cannot thank you enough for today’s post. It’s been forty years and more since I first heard the word, during my first stay in Kentucky; folks were talking about a man whose recreational activities included getting drunk and swarpin’ around. I asked then, but no one would tell me what it meant, I guess that ‘swarpin’ was a word for an activity that was not spoken of in polite company, so, not knowing the word, I followed my Mom’s advice: “If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it.” I never heard it during my time in West Georgia, though, after reading the full list of definitions in “Appalachia Inside Out” (and was that an entertaining journey!), I realized that there was a lot of swarpin’ going on there, too, but by a few different names.
    I tend to swarp a bit when I’m driving on the twisty, narrow roads hereabout, usually shying away from the edge of the road that terminates in a drop-off. My son-in-law, a professional truck driver, was riding with me one day and as I eased a little to the right, over the white line just a tad, he grabbed the steering wheel; I told him to “Turn loose, I got it!” He did, and we continued on. Later, he was telling his wife and mine about the incident, I put my nickel’s worth in, saying “Yeah, he took a fit over me driftin’ out of the road, and I hadn’t even hit the rumble-strips yet!”
    Anyway, “Swarpin’ is back in my lexicon after all these years, and I have you to thank for it.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 26, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    A swarp is a swipe with circular motion.
    A swarp in a swipe with some backbone in it.
    A swipe is what the windshield wipers do to clear droplets of rainfall on a Prius. A swarp clears mud, blood, bug splatter, pine sap, hair, teeth and feathers from your rusty old 4X4’s.
    I wonder if other countries with mountains make fun of the people that live in them.

  • Reply
    June 26, 2015 at 10:47 am

    I thought Don’s comment was very
    funny, someone ducking every time
    a church bell donged.
    When I was a little thing, daddy
    use to take us posseum hunting alot. We only had an ole kerosene lantern to see by and daddy carried it. But he’d hold a laurel bush or an ole sawbriar till the cows come home and then let whoever was behind get swarped. I learned not to follow too closely and
    just pray for a full moon…Ken

  • Reply
    June 26, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Some of the information on swarped makes me want to use the word at a formal luncheon. Spell check is even being ugly about this word.
    I learned the word in a household that taught honesty and hard work, and I am so very proud of everything about my Appalachian raising.
    I mostly heard it used to describe actins of an obnoxious, clutzy behavior. For instance, “He came swarping through the house like he owned the place.” Keep those words and expressions coming, Tipper.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 26, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Michael M. Cass–There’s an excellent chance you have the misfortune of being related to Don and me. Our family “migrated” from Madison County to far southwestern North Carolina.
    Don’s the family expert on such matters, and I’m sure he’ll respond. Right now he’s plundering around the Bryson City Cemetery trying to set local newspaper folks straight on some matters of town history and responsibility for that neglected graveyard.
    I don’t think he knows about the change from Cassada to Cass, but a goodly portion of our family spells the name Cassada.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    June 26, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Tipper, I’ve heard and used that word all my life. I think it is a perfectly good word. Enjoyed Jim and Don’s comment, I bet they are interesting folk to be around.

  • Reply
    June 26, 2015 at 9:49 am

    Okay! You got me! This is another new word for my Applichain vocabulary. Of course, reading all the explanations, makes me think there are a lot of different situations where ‘swarp’ can be used.

  • Reply
    Michael M. Cass
    June 26, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for an interesting post on language, Tipper. I’ve never heard ‘swarped’ but have heard and used “side-swiped” all my life.
    Mike Cass
    (to Jim and Don Casada: my Madison-County-born grandfather changed his name from Cassada in 1910, so I wonder if we’re related)

  • Reply
    June 26, 2015 at 9:14 am

    That excerpt from Mr Pissel’s diatribe was pretty funny stuff.I knew the word crapulent, but now have added “gitfidget” and “poltroon” to my vocabulary. Also, liked the “sour-spittled” woman. Don’t like being called the spawn of the devil, but the idea of gettin blind swarped has an appeal on occasions.

  • Reply
    June 26, 2015 at 8:54 am

    I’ve heard and used the word swarp all my life. Mom would tell us girls not to swarp our dress tail when we got close to the fire in the open grate.
    The word was used most often to describe a rowdy person. He was out drinkin’ and swarpin’ all night.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 26, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Tipper–Like Br’er Don, I’ve always heard (and used) swarp in connection with striking. One of the most common applications is “side-swarped,” as “Pap side-swarped a bunch of briers to teach Steve a lesson.”
    As for direct striking, it would be something along the lines of “Old Wade Gass side-swarped that jasper in his 6th grade class up side the head with a dusty eraser” (that’s from an actual experience).
    Turning to Professor Pissel Bush, no wonder he’s rather acerbic in his comments. If I had a name that immediately evoked thoughts of taking a leak on convenient shrubbery I’d likely be of a similar mindset.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    June 26, 2015 at 8:39 am

    I had not heard nor used the word “swarp” for years until I read it in your post here. I thoroughly enjoyed your explication of it and its various uses here, but did not much appreciate the “not so good” evaluation of it as a word. I’m all for preserving our quaint Apppalachian words/phrases that to me are so descriptive and appropriate. “More’s the pity,” that others haven’t yet discovered our beautiful, picturesque language!

  • Reply
    June 26, 2015 at 7:55 am

    Here in North Georgia I’ve always used and heard the word “warped” used as you’re using swarped. For example, “I had to swarp the car to the right to avoid hitting the possum that was in the road.” I have a flat lander friend who always makes fun of me when I use that word.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 26, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Don’t know if I will be using that word.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 26, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Don’t know if I will be using that word.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 26, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Don’t know if I will be using that word.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 26, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Don’t know if I will be using that word.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 26, 2015 at 7:25 am

    Words from folk enamored with the sound of their own voice. Deliver me, please!
    Swarp is a perfectly acceptable easily understood word describing an easily understood movement.
    It is a conjunction of sway and warp. A movement that starts out gently but ends sharply.
    Heard it all my life. Used it all my life.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    June 26, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Well, I learned something new today – that spoofs can swarp (or at least try to; I caught on about half-way through).
    Tipper, my experience with swarp has always been the striking variety. In fact, when you used the example of Pap’s mischievous driving, I interpreted it that the swarping was of the briers on Steve’s arm.
    As opposed to swarp in place of swerve, how about swarp in place of swipe:
    “Mike had been smarting off for a good half hour, but when he started picking on little Billy, that was all it took. Jenny reached out, took hold of the nearest thing to hand – a cast iron pan – and swarped (swiped) him up the side of the head. That pan bonged like a bell, and from that day on, Mike never picked on anyone, but every time he heard a church bell, he ducked.”

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