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Swaggering bullies, strutting models, and parading bands

He marched forward on to the lectern with the possessive insouciance of a hoodie swaggering on to his sink estate.

[Guardian 5 October 2011]

This evocative description of British PM David Cameron as he stepped up to address the recent Conservative Party Conference prompted me to think about the verb ‘swagger’ and how it’s often used to describe arrogant men – do women ever  swagger, I mused? Thanks to that wonderful fount of (nearly) all linguistic knowledge, the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), I quickly found that ‘swagger’ is chiefly applied to men. My discovery that synonyms for ‘swagger’ in the thesaurus on the subscriber version of Oxford Dictionaries Online included ‘strut’ and ‘parade’ sparked off more corpus-delving  and some comparison, and I found – to paraphrase the well-known aphorism – that ‘men swagger, models strut, and bands often parade’.

Verbal baggage

A brief detour for a true confession: although I enjoy reading lists of synonyms in thesauruses, I tend to the view that, in the majority of cases, there’s rarely true or absolute synonymy in English. For example, ‘buy’ and ‘purchase’ are synonymous in that they both mean ‘get something in exchange for payment’, but you’d be unlikely to say to a friend that you’ve just purchased fish and chips for dinner tonight. We know instinctively that ‘purchase’ sounds quite formal and highfalutin and unless you were deliberately trying to amuse, your friend would think you were just being pompous.

Thesauruses rightly give us the widest possible choice of alternative words, and the best ones make it crystal clear that a word isn’t always able to be slotted into a sentence as a direct substitute for another. Here are some of the methods they adopt:

  • Synonyms are listed in order, with the synonym that is closest in meaning to the headword given first.
  • Synonyms have descriptive labels which give information about the register of a word – so if you were writing a formal report about drug abuse, you’d opt for ‘addict’ or ‘user’ rather than ‘junkie’, which is clearly labelled as an informal word.
  • There are also labels as to the variety of English the word belongs to – American, South African, Indian, etc.
  • Typical grammatical patterns are shown. For example ‘buy’ is a transitive verb (as in they bought a new house), so synonyms are also given in transitive form (e.g. ‘pay for’) – this means that you aren’t misled into thinking you can swap ‘buy’ and ‘pay’ and say they paid a new house but rather are given a correct alternative (so that you write they paid for…) instead.

To sum up: most words carry with them a huge amount of ‘baggage’ in the form of collocational and syntactical patterns, connotations, and accepted levels of usage.  It’s very seldom that you can merely substitute one word for another and go on your merry way, happy in the knowledge that you’ve avoided using ‘nice’ or ‘get’ for the umpteenth time in the same piece of writing.

Swagger Jagger?

Returning to ‘swagger’, ‘strut’, and ‘parade’, these are close synonyms in several respects: these verbs all refer to types of movement and body language that are intended to make an impression, but as we’ve already seen, there are some important differences in usage and nuances of meaning.

‘Swagger’ is by far the least common word of the three, with only around 2,000 instances on the OEC. 66% of these are for the adjective or noun ‘swaggering’, which is typically applied to bullies, cowboys, CEOs, rockers, thugs, and gangsters – not a very savoury bunch on the whole! And the OEC shows that they are predominantly male. To swagger is to walk in an arrogant or supremely confident way, with a fluid, swinging movement:

Two strapping teenage boys swaggered along cracking jokes and laughing.

Jasper Britton is almost equally fine, a swaggering bully who reveals glimpses of deep grief and tenderness.

As a noun, ‘swagger’ has undergone a recent rebirth. Typically found on the OEC alongside ‘masculine’ words such as ‘cocksure’ and ‘cocky’, it has been reclaimed by some women to express a strong and sassy femininity. However, that’s an intriguing blog post for another time – for now, the focus is on the verbs.

Strutting about in a fur bikini …

The verb ‘strut’ describes a less flowing action than ‘swagger’ – it suggests a rather stiff walk or march, with the body held erect and oozing self-confidence and sometimes giving the impression of a certain aloofness. Like ‘swagger’, the adjective or noun ‘strutting’ has a high proportion (40%) of instances on the OEC. Another similarity with ‘swagger’ is that people who strut are often viewed in a negative light: they may be overly confident, rather unpleasant, or attempting to hide some inadequacy beneath their outward display of assurance:

Ian Hogg’s Caesar is a vain, strutting figure delighting in his ticker-tape parades.

However, it’s not all bad – dancers, performers, and contestants strut proudly, defiantly, or sexily, and as with ‘parade’, strutting is often done with a view to showing off your outfit. Unlike ‘swagger’, ‘strut’ is also often applied to women – models of both sexes are typically described in this way:

There will also be a fashion show, where models will strut down the catwalk sporting wireless technology outfits.

Raquel Welch strutted about the island in a fur bikini in One Million Years BC.

People who strut are often simultaneously referred to as ‘preening’ (it’s a bird thing) and, interestingly, ‘strut’ is also used to describe the movements and demeanour of certain birds, such as peacocks, cocks, and flamingos:

I have never seen so many wannabe celebs strutting and preening in my life.

Brilliantly plumed peacocks strut about, perching themselves under finely carved stone archways.

Tsk, tsk –  put it away!

Of the three verbs, the most common is ‘parade’, with almost twice as many examples on the OEC than ‘strut’. It’s typically used in a much more positive way, too: people parade triumphantly, happily, and proudly. Parading is often a communal activity, done as part of a procession with a large number of people in celebration of something, and those who parade are often marching bands, soldiers, sports players, actors, dancers, and children:

On land the Sea Cadets took part in hornpipe and club-swinging displays while a marching band paraded through the marina.

When applied to individual people, however, ‘parade’ often carries similar negative connotations to ‘strut’ and ‘swagger’. There’s no mistaking the highly disapproving tone in this typical example:

I cringe when I see women parading around in next to nothing because I know that teenage girls are impressionable and will emulate these women.

The implication is that the person in question is wearing clothes that are attracting attention for all the wrong reasons: whereas Raquel Welch was admired for strutting around in her bikini, in the case of ‘parade’ the person’s outfit or appearance is often deemed inappropriate, ridiculous, or overly skimpy (tut, tut!).

More sets of close synonyms will be explored, considered, put under the microscope, or even ruminated over during the coming months … watch this space.

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