Words in the news: ‘a swarm of people’
Is the phrase ‘a swarm of people’ automatically pejorative and insulting? Or is it merely a harmless metaphor? That is the issue this blog explores.
The many critics of David Cameron’s use of the phrase in a TV interview certainly found it insulting (fuller context is at the end). Labour’s acting leader, Harriet Harman, stated that ‘he should remember he is talking about people and not insects’, while Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn described his language as ‘inflammatory, incendiary, and unbecoming of a prime minister.’ Joining the loud chorus of disapproval, the Bishop of Dover said: ‘To put them [migrants and refugees] all together in that very unhelpful phrase just categorizes people and I think he could soften that language …’
Is it really that bad?
This brouhaha illustrates how emotive a single word can be, and for me immediately raised various questions. First, weren’t the commentators being literalistic? It is, surely, possible to describe a group of people as a swarm. Second, if it is possible what does swarm then imply? Third, those critics picked up on certain connotations, but are those connotations the same for all English speakers?
To answer those questions, three sources of evidence suggest themselves: current dictionary definitions; historical contexts for the word; and modern contexts, retrievable from language corpora.
What can dictionaries tell us?
OxfordDictionaries.com gives as a secondary meaning ‘a large number of people or things: a swarm of journalists’. (Sorry, journalists!). Other modern dictionaries also cover this use. Interestingly, they do not assign it a label, as dictionaries often do, such as ‘offensive’ or ‘derogatory’. In fact, only the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does: ‘A very large or dense body or collection; a crowd, throng, multitude. (Often contemptuous.)’
A word with a long pedigree
The noun swarm goes back to Old English (at least as far back as 725) and is part of the Germanic word-stock of English, with cognates in modern Germanic languages. Its core meaning, as the OED puts it, is ‘a body of bees which at a particular season leave the hive or main stock, gather in a compact mass or cluster, and fly off together in search of a new dwelling-place, under the guidance of a queen (or are transferred at once to a new hive).’
But the second OED meaning is the ‘very large or dense body …’ mentioned above. This is further subdivided into ‘people’ and ‘insects’.
The first known example of swarm of people has a royal pedigree, since King James I of Scotland used it in his early-fifteenth-century poem the Kingis Quair (the King’s Book). Describing people clambering to get on to Fortune’s wheel, he wrote: ‘And ever I sawe a new swarm abound’. ‘Swarm’ here takes up ‘multitude’ and ‘so mony’ (= many) in previous stanzas. While it therefore refers principally to the numbers involved, the whole context, with people clambering desperately to get (back) on the wheel also suggests an element of chaos.
A swarm of bishops?
Of the nine further OED citations for this meaning, four explicitly characterize the swarm(s) of people as undesirable (all in theological contexts, as it happens), starting in 1549: swarm(s) of Antichrist, bishops, false ministers, sects. In other cases, from the limited context given, it is unclear whether there is any connotation beyond mere size, e.g. ‘There shall … come leapyng foorth whole swarmes, of bothe horsemen and footemen.’ So, from early on, applying the word to people could be negative but wasn’t necessarily so.
Further evidence for its negative tinge comes from the earliest citations retrieved from Google Ngrams (a vast database of scanned post-1800 books). In the earliest period covered, swarm of mostly refers to insects. However all three examples (which include Gibbon and Goldsmith) mentioning people are negative, e.g. ‘England is already, unfortunately for native talent, cursed with a swarm of these exotic “artists”.’ These tend to reinforce what was said about the OED citations: the word’s negative associations are of long standing.
On the other hand, searching for the plural string swarms of people in Google Ngrams throws up both neutral and pejorative uses. There is Addison’s neutral ‘… trade and merchandise, that had filled the Thames with such crowds of ships, and covered the shore with such swarms of people’ (The Freeholder, Vol. 4, No. 47, 1715-16).
But there is also Malthus’s ‘... in the midst of that mighty hive which had sent out such swarms of people, as to keep the Roman world in perpetual dread, …’ (An Essay on the Principle of Population, Book 1, ch. 6, 1798).
What are the word’s connotations?
Like so much of the language we use, swarm is a metaphor (i.e. it applies to something, which it does not literally denote). Metaphors can be ‘dead’, ‘dying’, or ‘dormant’. It seems that the dormant swarm metaphor has been rudely reawakened by the current controversy.
Literally ‘by definition’, a swarm is large. As regards its connotations, i.e. the components of its meaning that can be specified, they seem necessarily to include:
- motion (‘It’s a swarm, but it’s moving’ would be an odd sentence.)
- compactness (‘It’s a swarm, but it’s close together’ sounds similarly odd)
Less clear-cut are traits such as:
- confusion (‘It’s a swarm, but it’s well organized’. Why shouldn’t it be well organized?)
Harder to pin down are features such as ‘common origin’ and ‘hostility’, but they occasionally emerge in corpus examples.
And what about the people to whom swarm of applies? We have already seen that they may or may not be viewed negatively. However, if any speaker’s knowledge of a word is influenced by all the contexts in which that word occurs, and if we go back to the core meaning to do with groups of insects, and see that those insects are generally undesirable (locusts, flies, ants, gnats, etc.), it seems likely that for some people those insect contexts colour all others.
In addition, the human grouping described as a swarm of is unlikely to be prestigious. Nobody is likely to refer to a swarm of successful businesspeople/highly talented musicians/stellar authors, etc. (add as you think fit).
What does corpus data suggest?
Many of the 1,700 examples in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) of swarm of relate to insects, not to humans. However, the data shows that (within a window of three to the right) it collocates with: people; angry youth/bloggers/media; reporters; media; children. Apart from children, all these are viewed negatively, a negativity which reaches its apogee in examples such as ‘a swarm of those bloodsuckers who are always on the watch for public calamities.’
Swarm of people
Of the 32 examples of swarm of people from the OEC about half seem to be neutral, as far as one can gather from the limited context available: for example (from a news site): ‘Whistles and drums will echo through Lancaster as a swarm of people parade through the streets in a bid to save a nursery.’
That contrasts with contexts such as ‘Suddenly Bradson was centre of a swarm of people, all staring at him, pressing close, addressing him in a language he could not comprehend’, where the swarm is clearly perceived as threatening.
When referring to people, swarm has a tendency to be negative. As further confirmation of that, several of the synonyms dictionaries give for swarm are unfavourable (horde, gang, mob, etc.).
Yet it seems unlikely that such a polished and fluent public speaker as Mr Cameron would choose a word knowing that it might be inflammatory. From that standpoint, it is quite possible to suppose that he was merely using a standard English metaphor, which his critics and the thought police have pounced on in order to make political capital. His word choice could be justified by the rather more neutral uses of swarm previously detailed. That fits in with Downing Street’s justification that ‘The point he was making is that there are tens of thousands of people moving across Africa and trying to get to Europe.’
It may also be true that some people – Mr Cameron, for example – are only alert to the word’s ‘large group’ meaning, while other people immediately respond to its more negative traits. Comments on the Internet suggest that this is the case.
However, because the larger verbal contexts in which swarm of tends to occur are so often negative, many people are attuned to that negativity, and will therefore colour seemingly neutral contexts with it. Furthermore, since the larger, social context is the whole British debate about migrants, which is often couched in negative terms, the critics’ reactions are understandable.
Mr Cameron’s words
(From the British newspaper the Guardian, 30 July 2015) ‘Speaking to ITV News in Vietnam, Cameron vowed to do more to protect Britain’s borders. He said: ‘“We have to deal with the problem at source and that is stopping so many people from travelling across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. That means trying to stabilize the countries from which they come, it also means breaking the link between travelling and getting the right to stay in Europe.
This is very testing, I accept that, because you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live. But we need to protect our borders by working hand in glove with our neighbours, the French, and that is exactly what we are doing.”’