As the weather is turning cold and many of us in the Northern Hemisphere are close to getting our first frost of the year, we can’t help but be reminded of the many warm weather activities we are starting to miss. One of the main activities we are missing – unless you have access to a heated pool or live in a warmer climate – is swimming. Still, regardless of whether you are doing it for sport or for recreation, and no matter what stroke you use, swimming is one of the most popular recreational activities – even being taught as a part of basic education in some countries.
First used in the allegorical narrative poem Piers Plowman by William Langland in 1377, which writes that: “He that never have dived/plunged and not can of swimming” our word was initially defined as ‘the action of moving along in the water by natural means of progression’. Coming from the Old English swimman, which means ‘to move in or on the water’, our term finds its root in the Proto-Germanic swimjan. Beyond the word itself though, the action of swimming is, predictably far older, with references to swimming mentioned in the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and even in 7,000-year-old Stone Age paintings.
Like many words in English, though swimming still maintains the basic original meaning, it has also acquired additional ones. In 1530, John Palsgrave, in his detailed work on French grammar, L’éclaircissement de la langue française, mentions the idea of “Swimming in the head, bestournement.”, meaning as a state of giddiness or dizziness. As a contrast to modern sayings, such as when someone speaks of “a head swimming with ideas”, this definition can be taken more as a case of vertigo or post-concussion syndrome.
Expounding on the idea of something ‘floating on the surface’, the term was applied to the movement of ships in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 work, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, where he mentions that: “The Fire so burned the upper Part, that it soon made them unfit for swimming in the Sea as Boats.” Adding to this roughly a century later, John C. Loudon, in his Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture (1833), tells of individual grains floating on water, mentioning that: “The swimmings, or light grains that are skimmed off in the cistern.”
Finally, considering fluidity of motion, swimming has also been defined as the appearance of something floating or wavering before the eyes. Perhaps the most interesting usage of this can be found in the Scottish poet (and humorist) Tobias Smollett’s picaresque novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), where, using this definition along with the earlier “foggy” mental definition, Smollett assets that: “The continual swimming of those phantoms before my eyes, gave me a swimming of the head.”
From the definitions and usages that it has developed, let’s hope that our fondness for swimming will remind us enjoyment, fun in the sun, and an exhilarating activity instead of apparitions and vertigo.