Swag, Pelf, Lucre & Raven:
Words for Dishonest Gain & Ill-gotten Goods
I love the sound of the word swag, with its sonic burden of heavy golden boodle distending a thief’s fat sack as he scurries away under the muffling quilt of night. Farewell, my silver teaspoons!
This bold word for plunderer’s booty seems Scandinavian in origin. Actually it is an instance of two separate words blending. Swag is directly related to sway which verb contains echoes of other verbs, namely both weigh and sway. Swag weighs down a thief’s coin-rich bag and makes it sway? Possibly. There are Norwegian dialect words like svagga and svaga ‘to sway.’ And most English speakers know Australia’s national song, “Waltzing Matilda” and the happy hobo of its opening lyrics, who packs his sleeping bag and other total worldly belongings in a swag and hits the road:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
“Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me?”
It means ‘stolen goods, obscene riches, filthy lucre.” This terse relative of the words pilfer and pilferer is one of my cherished monosyllabic nouns. The clawed hand of a miser’s clutch grasps the word itself. Yes, I hold it to my word-heart much as a toothless beldam, alive but embalmed in black bombazine, might press a dead lapdog to her withered dugs and force a niece to pry the defunct mutt from obstinate yellowed fingers. Pelf has been lurking around since the Norman Conquest. In Anglo-Norman it was pelfre ‘ill-gotten boodle,’ perhaps an altered version of felpe, ferpe, frepe, ancient French words for ‘old clothes, rags.’
Happily do I quote a Canadian writer, E. J. Pratt, who wrote in Towards the Last Spike “At least they knew His personal pockets were not lined with pelf, Whatever loot the others grabbed.”
Two Obsolete Synonyms for Plunder
1. Direption came into fifteenth-century English from its proximate etymon, a French form, la direption, itself borrowed from a classical Latin noun direptio, direptionis ‘a laying waste, a tearing down.’ At first in English, direption was a military term that meant ‘sacking a town;’ then, like many nouns of destruction, it gained semantic amplitude, and came to refer to pillaging on a broader scale, such as the laying waste of an entire country.
2. Reiving and to reive are active and frequent in current Scottish English. The agent noun was given briefly renewed life in World English by its use in the title of William Faulkner’s last novel, published in 1962, The Reivers. It was made into a fair-to-middlin’ movie starring Steve McQueen.
To reave is related to the commoner English verb to rob, itself cognate with Modern German rauben and Dutch roven ‘to steal, to plunder, to despoil,’ their ultimate Proto-Indo-European etymon the same base as Latin rumpere ‘to break’ and Sanskrit rúpyati ‘it really hurts.’ The Oxford English Dictionary cites this tasty March 1999 quotation from a Scottish newspaper, The Glasgow Herald: “To have a team called the Edinburgh Reivers is nonsense, as nobody from Edinburgh ever reived.”
Reive is a popular verb to use in rhyming verb phrases, verbs coupled for semantic intensification, e.g. to rob and reive, to reive and ravage, robbed and reft and left for dead.
Although nowadays in current English we only know its present-participial adjective in phrases like ‘ravening hunger’ and ‘ravenous greed,’ to raven is a very old verb which flourished in sixteenth-century English (and perhaps two hundred years earlier) as a commonplace in legal documents, for example, from 1513 CE “his movable goods were spoiled and ravened among the King’s officers.” To raven meant to seize property and divide it as spoils among other people. For two or three hundred years, a cliché was the double verb phrase ‘to spoil and raven.’
Etymology & Semantics
Some form of the root appears to have arrived from France during the Norman invasion of England (1066 and all that). In twelfth-century French, we find raviner ‘to stream, to rush’ and later in Middle French raviner means ‘to furrow the earth with gullies,’ hence our English borrowing ravine.
To raven has a secondary meaning of ‘to plunder.’ The soldiers swept over the countryside ransacking everything, marauding, ravening for plunder. This seems a cogent expansion of meaning: from furrowing by gully to robbing and rampaging for booty like violent floods of water.
The current most common usage of to raven is likewise old. It meant to feed greedily, to eat and devour like an animal, by the sixteenth century. The clustering sharks ravened on the dead whale. Wolves raven passive sheep.
Other Terms, Similar But Not Necessarily Synonymous:
Boodle, bootlegging, booty, burglary, contraband, counterfeiting, despoiling, dough, gain, goods, graft, hot goods, haul, loot, marauding, pickings, pillage, piracy, plunder, poaching, rapine, raven, ransacking, ravaging, robbery, sacking, smuggling, spoils, spoliation, swag, the take, takings, theft and trafficking.
In current English, only with a depreciative meaning, lucre is immorally obtained profit, obscene gain at the expense of others. Entering English from French lucre, our word began as Latin lucrum ‘wages, reward,’ cognate with Greek apolauein ‘to enjoy the fruits of conquest’ and with the modern German noun der Lohn ‘wages, pay.’
Let me now employ the word in an illustrative sentence: The tar-sands oil executive wallowed in the greasy lucre of his wealth, bobbing upon the surface of his Calgary Hills swimming pool like a bloated porpoise, a subtle smile of smug contentment crinkling his fetid lips, as poison clouds drifted past, so far above the pleasantly buoyant mogul as to be not worthy of his observation.
One Really Obscure Booty Word
I like to provide loyal readers with the occasional gem of verbal rarity. Among the swag-pelf words, the rarest of all is the adjective manubial, a word blistered in wrongful conduct, a word all gooey with the mucilage of iniquity. You just know that any object introduced into one’s yawning coffers by manubial acquisition was obtained through evil acts.
The adjective manubial describes booty taken in war. Manubial enters English directly from classical Latin manubiae ‘a general’s share of the spoils of war.’ With blunt greed, the Latin word literally means “what one can get one’s hands on,’ because the compound term is made up of Latin manus ‘hand’ + some shrunken suffixal morpheme of Latin habere ‘to have, to hold.’
Surprisingly this rare word is still in print and used by classicists writing in English about the Roman republic and the early days of the Augustan empire.
As a stylist always on the qui vive for a fresh word of abuse, I would not be above slipping the noun itself into some analysis of do-bad American bankers, as they finger their manubiae aboard the two-hundred-foot yacht bound out for Fiji. May the Good Ship Larceny founder — with all hands on cash.
Copyright 2012 © William Gordon Casselman
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