What Is ‘Swagger’ And Where The Hell Did It Come From?

I’ll admit that because I’m a millennial, I should probably have a pretty good idea what this illusive “swagger” is. But, truth is, I have no fucking clue. I think it has something to do with how cool you act, or how this inherent coolness is perceived by others, but I’m totally just guessing here. I’m whiter than white (a redhead, no less), so anything rooted in hip hop culture is lost on me.

Since you deserve better than my guesswork, I’ve done some digging into the word’s historical past. So first, let me get to what the Hell swagger means.

What Is Swag?

To find out how far off I am in its definition, I first consulted millennial internet authority, Urban Dictionary, to tell me what it was. If you, like me, do some digging yourself, you’ll find the site defines swag as many things (mostly offensive in nature, written in a mocking tone), but after rooting through six offensive descriptions, this one seemed most suitable and accurate:

The new generation’s alternative word for ‘cool’. This generation originally used swag to describe anyone thought to carry themselves in a way considered by some to be sexy or cool. Now it’s used to describe anything thought to be cool.”

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This definition suggests swag has gone through an evolution of sorts. The term was originally a way to describe the discernible confidence one carries in themselves, but grew to become a larger blanket term to label all things cool.

Urban Dictionary’s definition continues to compare swag to another popular term our moms and dads once often used. The word being: Groovy. The definition suggests that “Groovy disappeared from the majority of vocabularies within 10 years, foreshadowing the fate of swag,” which suggests the word “swag” also has a limited shelf life.

Who Invented Swag? (Or: Who’s Responsible For This Shit?)

Many argue the term’s origins are rooted in hip hop, but the first time I ever heard the word was in Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” where he repeats “swag” as if he’s tenderly trying to seduce the listener into his satin sheets.

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According to Slate, Jay-Z believes himself to be the term’s official owner. In his track “Otis”, he declares this outright with the lyrics,“I invented swag.”

But did he really?

According to this same article, no, Jay-Z did not invent the term. Hov was merely a pioneer in its subsequent popularity, acting as a megaphone for the cause. Jay-Z planted the word (a mere seedling at the time) in some notable tracks dating back to 2003. But swag as an idea didn’t truly catch on until around 2007.

Soulja Boy later assisted in keeping the term relevant by incorporating it in a few of his more popular tracks — particularly “Thirsty” and “Turn My Swag On” — but his limited audience could not quite make the term influential enough to become part of our millennial lexicon.

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That’s when some much bigger players took ownership.

Enter T.I. and Jay-Z (again) with their smash hit “Swagger Like Us,” which helped re-launch the term to a much broader audience, which was then quickly scooped up by both Gucci Mane and Willow Smith, as well as features in other hit songs by various artists.

By 2010 – 2011, the term finally hit it big. In fact, Sean Combs (who has been known to change his name with the tip of the hat) briefly changed his name to “Swag” in 2011, and the word was announced “Hip Hop’s Word of the Year” in 2011 by All Things Considered.

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Not to mention, the stuffy yet fiercely reputable New Yorker said the term was officially, “A noun, an adjective, a verb, and an all-purpose expression of agreement or endorsement.”

It was official, academics claimed the word was indeed legitimate, so we emphatically followed. Even Oxford dictionary agrees, defining swag as both “A very confident manner or attitude” and, much less accurate in terms of usage in this piece, “A decorative garland or chain of flowers.”

But guess what?

I’ve kind of been leading you on here as I’ve yet to reveal the official figure to birth the term. I will tell you the man who invented the term is no hip hop mogul, nor is he of this generation. The man I’m slowly referring to is none other than William Shakespeare.

Illustration: Zuma World

Illustration: Zuma World

Indeed, the term’s origins dates way back to the 1580s, with the earliest recorded usages being in the titles: “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Henry V” and “King Lear.”

Back in these days, the term meant “To strut in a defiant or insolent manner,” which really doesn’t differ much from how it’s used today. If nothing else, the terms taken on more responsibility since its modest inception.

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So there you have it, fellas, the term now used in countless rap tracks comes from none other than Sir William Shakespeare. Which yet again suggests that Shakespeare would have made a fantastic rapper.

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