Swarthy: offensive or not?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by AngelEyes, Apr 12, 2007.

  1. AngelEyes

    AngelEyes Senior Member

    English - United States
    Note: This thread was opened in response to a discussion in our Italian forum: forum.wordreference.com/threads/swarthy-types.461866/
    Cagey, moderator

    We American women think of the swarthy type as a dark-skinned (not black), exotic, intense type of man.

    Swarthy is not an offensive word at all, unless you hate that type of man, but even then, it's not one you'd use if you wanted to talk negatively about someone in general.

    Swarthy is exactly the word an uninformed American woman would use if asked to physically describe an Italian guy. Preconceptions are rampant here in the US over what constitutes a typical Italian male.

    He's dark, brown-eyed, intense, and emotionally dramatic. His skin looks like it would be hot to the touch, and he's usually quite hairy, though that's subject to individual interpretation as to what constitutes "too hairy."

    In short, Italian men are swarthy. And when someone says that, it's usually not with a shudder, but a shiver. ;)

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 26, 2016
  2. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
    Oh my God, are you telling me that to an American woman eyes I can't be Italian as my skin is fair?? :eek:
  3. AngelEyes

    AngelEyes Senior Member

    English - United States

    Are you still trying to pass yourself off as Italian?

    You have blue eyes and lighter hair...impossible.

    You're not swarthy at all. :)

    Seriously...yes, American women in general, I think, would be surprised there are so many Italian variations.

    But once again, I want to emphasize that if you hear someone refer to you as "swarthy," do not take offense. It's almost always said under the guise of a compliment.

    Others may come forward to disagree. I'd be surprised if they did, though.

  4. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
    Interesting however: you find swarthy not offensive whereas Lee, who's English said it's very offensive.
    On the other hand you suggested not to call a black guy spook, whereas Alex, who's English questioned that it's not that offensive to his ears.
  5. AngelEyes

    AngelEyes Senior Member

    English - United States
    I read Lee's post, which was rather difficult, because I don't understand Italian, but nevertheless...:)

    One of the nice things I've learned here on the Forum is the different nuances placed on various terms. Also, many times, there is quite a contrast between British and American interpretations.

    Spook is one, apparently.

    Swarthy is another.

    No way in America would those two words be grouped in the negative column together. Only spook carries an additional connotation.

    Imagine a woman had just returned from a trip to Italy, and she was asked by her girlfriends if she'd met an interesting man, and she'd replied, "Yes."

    They'd ask, "What was he like?"

    She might say, "He was yummy. You know, the swarthy, European type."

    Trust me, those girlfriends would not be curling their lips in derision of the description. They'd be leaning forward, anxious to hear more.

    Also, I think American women would also use swarthy to describe most Latin men who are dark haired with dark complexions.

    By the way, maybe someone might post Lee's words in English, please, if that's allowed in the context of this thread.

  6. shamblesuk

    shamblesuk Senior Member

    England, English
    I meant that 'swarthy' is a slightly racist way of referring to meditteranean men as per other explanations.

    Come to think of it's more derogatory than racist......It's not a compliment here anyway!


  7. AngelEyes

    AngelEyes Senior Member

    English - United States
    Very interesting! But why, because of the erroneous view that the ideal handsome type is not dark?

    What negative, physical characteristics does the word denote that immediately is considered negative, if a man is described by using this word? Or does swarthy also carry with it personality traits that someone would take as a negative opinion if it was said about them?

    Because, as I have noted before, swarthy used over here would solicit female interest, not the opposite.

  8. shamblesuk

    shamblesuk Senior Member

    England, English
    Maybe see if any English females are around (I've asked a couple of colleagues here) who agree that swarthy is negative and smooth, suave etc are positives. 'Adonis' came up as another surprising description!

  9. federicoft Senior Member

    I wonder how is it possibile to distinguish Italian people from other Europeans according to their complexion. Most Italians can look perfectly central or northern European and there are also many blond, blue-eyed Italians, even in Sicily. I think Americans have a slightly strange opinion about us.
  10. AngelEyes

    AngelEyes Senior Member

    English - United States

    I'm trying to think of a well-known Italian person who's in the papers or on TV over here. I can't think of one at the moment who's blond and blue-eyed.

    Also, all our Italian movie characters are dark, swarthy types. (Sorry, I couldn't resist. ;) )

    Think of us as a clueless lot rather than as a judgmental one.

    I'm still a bit confused as to just why swarthy is negative. Is it just the way he looks? Or does it also carry that negative picture of the guy who swaggers and raises his eyebrows, trying to affect a sophisticated aura? Kind of like an Italian John Wayne walk.

  11. Il Medico Member

    New York
    english U.S.A
    Swarthy, in the US, is a perjorative type of term. Nobody ever says it in a complimentary way. It is used to describe somebody in a negative sense. "You know, that swarthy Italian guy".
  12. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
    Now I'm wondering whether women and men have a different perception of that term seeing that it doesn't seem to be a matter of BE vs AE interpretation..
  13. Karl!!!! Senior Member

    Derby. England
    I don't think the word swarthy in itself is negative or positive, it's just a neutral word that is used alongside other adjectives when describing somebody. So, in a novel for example, your opinion of a person will be affected by the whole description, and so the word swarthy takes on a positive or negative meaning with that description.
  14. Orange Blossom Senior Member

    U.S.A. English
    Interesting, as I find nothing negative about swarthy, but suave and smooth give me the shudders. Suave and smooth make me think of a slimy person without scruples.

    Orange Blossom
  15. AWordLover

    AWordLover Senior Member

    Atlanta, Georgia USA
    USA English
    I'm guessing there are regional differences. I am originally from New York (not Georgia). I have heard swarthy used as a complement, as a neutral term, and as a derogotory term.

    Once upon a time, the hero was "suave and debonaire", now suave can be a synonym for smooth or manipulative.
  16. AngelEyes

    AngelEyes Senior Member

    English - United States
    It seems as if we're looking at this word from two different perspectives.

    If a person looks swarthy, it literally means he's dark and very Latin looking. Whether or not that's your opinion of a handsome man would determine if it's a compliment or not.

    I get the impression from some of the responses that swarthy is also used to describe certain personality traits, like slick and show-offy, which would mean you might think this word is only used when you don't like someone.

    Since I don't use it to describe the personality or even the body movements, then I don't and never have thought of it as a negative term.

    Now if I thought a guy was sleazy and greasy-looking, I'd say he's swarmy. Totally different word.

  17. Orange Blossom Senior Member

    U.S.A. English
    I've always considered swarthy to be a physical description myself, though I never made any specific association with place of origin, Italian or otherwise. Smooth and suave I've always associated with personality traits, negative ones at that, so I was rather surprised to see them come up when swarthy was the word under discussion.

    To me swarthy means that someone is somewhat dark of skin, more so than medium dark but not as dark as some folks I know from the Sudan and perhaps, but not necessarily, has a rugged appearance. Degree of hairiness never crossed my mind; after all it would be possible to have a swarthy complexion and be completely hairless.

    I guess the answer to the initial question is that some people find swarthy offensive and others do not. Perhaps some folks have a different concept of what swarthy means.

    Orange Blossom
  18. plugh Senior Member

    West Lake Hills, TX
    United States Bronx American English
    When I've heard the word "swarthy" used in America, it was used as a euphemism to describe someone as non-white and therefore not "one of us". I would choose another word because many Americans use it in a negative context.
  19. abhijeet New Member

    Kharagpur, India
    India-Hindi & English
    The term "swarthy" mostly referred to seafaring men because of their darker skins!
    And seafaring men are known to be tough and can survive the worst!! And when we come across terms like these we immediately imagine pirates.. guess that is why the word "swarthy" could have a negative element associated with itself!
  20. A-class-act Banned

    Arabic, French
    As I'm a biracial "French-Algerian" I'm tanned;I have a green eyes and I'm chestnut haired,so for that,can use the termSwarthy to describe myself?
  21. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    I don't think this word is used much here in everyday conversation. I have a picture when I hear "swarthy" of someone is medium-dark in complexion, stocky or solidly-built and rugged in some way, either outdoorsy or looks like he could handle himself in a fight. A "thin, swarthy man", for example, sounds incongruous to me, and "a swarthy effeminate man" also sounds like an oxymoron to me. In my mind a swarthy man most likely has a great deal of dark body hair as well.

    I have heard "swarthy" used in both negative and positive contexts. I don't think it's negative in itself.

    I also don't think it's limited to "Latins." I have met people from Pakistan, India, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia that fall within my concept of swarthy.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2009
  22. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    I've met women from northern Italy and they were fair skinned, blue eyed and blond. More like Scandinavians.

    In spy novels the bad guys are often "swarthy" indicating a middle eastern nationality. If you are into spy novels your perception of "swarthy" might differ from readers of romance novels.
  23. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    I'm surprised at you, AngelEyes, not thinking of Fabio. ;) I'm not sure he's blue-eyed, but he's definitely not the stereotypical dark-haired Italian. He's graced many a gothic romance cover and more than a few magazine covers as well. He is not what I would call swarthy.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2009
  24. UUBiker Senior Member

    Arlington, Virignia
    United States, English
    I dunno. My bff (best friend forever) is an Iraqi-American, and it would be best not to call him "swarthy." He would not consider it a compliment.

    Last I check, Leonardo DiCaprio is not "swarthy," and there was an American singer known as old blue-eyes who wasn't either. I wouldn't call Agent DiNozzo on NCIS swarthy either (but he is handsome). He's played by an actor who looks pretty WASPy to me, and who has a wholly WASPy name ("Weatherly" in real life), so I'd say we're at least a little flexible on what an Italian looks like.

    I think you're getting Italians on TV mixed up with mafiosi on TV.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2009
  25. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I'm with you, UUB, and with plugh (post 18).

    For me, it has overtones of British colonialists talking about the natives.

    I would not call anyone "swarthy".
  26. Franzi Senior Member

    Astoria, NY
    (San Francisco) English
    To me, 'swarthy' does conjure up the image of a stereotypical latin lover in a romance novel. It also brings to mind stereotypical villains in spy novels. I wouldn't find it offensive in print necessarily, especially if I were reading an older book, but I would find it shockingly racist and offensive if someone referred to one of my friends this way in person.

    It's not that 'swarthy' is associated with bad qualities necessarily (those romance novel heroes are supposed to be attractive and sympathetic, after all), but it is associated with completely flat, unidimensional, stereotypical characters. To me, it sounds totally dehumanizing to call someone 'swarthy'. It brings to mind the idea that there is some default type of person (usually upperclass and British or some American's fantasy of what upperclass British people are like) and other people are more hotblooded, less rational, more animalistic, etc. (And, of course, such ideas are very common in both romance and spy novels.)
  27. UUBiker Senior Member

    Arlington, Virignia
    United States, English
    Only facetiously, or perhaps in Craigslist personals.
  28. abrooklynson New Member

    FYI, Swarthy is applied to a weathered tan face, originally associated with pirates…<----Off-topic comments removed.----->
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 17, 2015
  29. plugh Senior Member

    West Lake Hills, TX
    United States Bronx American English
    It is not used for black people. It was used for for people with dark olive skin.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 26, 2016
  30. mrodent New Member

    Speaking from an English viewpoint, swarthy would certainly apply to the archetypical southern Italian look (in fact in Sicily recently I saw many people who didn't correspond to that idea really...) but in the UK it can also reference Celtic looks... in fact a friend of mine from Newcastle (North-east of England) delights in the fact that he has "swarthe". I think this is a coining of his own. "Swarthy" suggests thick, abundant black hair, and eyebrows (see Sean Connery), but it's also an attitude: the Swarthy of the UK are tough, a little inscrutable, almost certainly have a jaded view of softey Southerners (those from London and the Home Counties, and who are too "soft"), very predominantly male, and above all, distinctly BROODING. It's difficult to imagine any woman anywhere in the UK (or the world) being delighted at being described as "swarthy": it implies heavy, emphatic features.

    Interestingly, I can't say that I feel that "swarthy" applies to South Asian looks, however. I think this is for purely cultural reasons. Maybe not many UK guys of South Asian extraction have quite captured the brooding thing? Must try harder...
  31. YWhateley New Member

    English - US (Cincinnati & SE Kentucky)
    I will "Necro" this thread, I recently had some reason to be interested in learning more about this word.

    I've never heard an American use the word "swarthy" in real life.

    Rather, I've mostly seen "swarthy" being used in pulp literature from the early 20th century, where it gets used frequently as shorthand for "this character is Turkish, Semetic, North African, southern European, or possibly Indian (or for a country neighboring India), or possibly Hispanic, and you know how all THOSE sorts are...." Chances are, if you see a character in old pulp fiction described as "swarthy", he (it's almost always a male character) will probably turn up again later as the prime suspect in some sort of violent, "thuggish" crime, and he'll probably be guilty, too: anarchists, gangsters, communists, fascists, subversives, terrorists, criminals, bandits, cultists, rapists, and the like. In that sort of fiction, you can expect unfortunate implications with descriptions and characterizations leaning toward dishonesty, immorality, poverty, laziness, poor self-control, oily skin and hair, shifty eyes, menacing physicality, dangerous secret societies and cults and organizations, and so on.

    Once or twice, I've seen well-meaning modern writers imitating traditional pulp fiction use the word "swarthy" to apply to any character who is trying to be stealthy, probably because the author was laboring under an embarrassing misunderstanding of what the word actually means, and I have to imagine those authors had probably never heard or seen the word outside of the fiction they were aping (it's easy to imagine those modern writers seeing references to 'swarthy' people sneaking around, and not catching what the source fiction was implying about darker-skinned characters).

    Those old pulp fiction writers were apparently describing stereotypes of immigrants from Mediterranean and some Asian countries as being difficult to integrate into American and English cities, and thus being inclined toward organized crime to make ends meet, a tendency to hang onto elements of their own cultures, and a tendency to join strange and subversive religious or political organizations, perhaps thanks in no small part to some highly-publicized news stories at the time (for examples, consider the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine and Anarchist and Communist bombing plots, which were, with some possible but debatable justification, blamed on Spanish- and Italian-American conspirators; at roughly the same time, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax and conspiracy theories about the Great Depression which fueled suspicions about Jewish-Americans, while the role of the Ottoman Empire in the first World War cast suspicion on Turkish and Middle-Eastern immigrants.)

    Today, in American English I would consider the word "swarthy", with all its pulp-era connotations, to be a distasteful product of that time, and one that's probably best left in the past: I would avoid using the word in any way except in the context of a period piece from the 1900s-1940s, and even then it's hard to think of any constructive way to use it except as short-hand for "the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant character who just used the word is probably at least a little bit prejudiced". The word itself isn't particularly offensive, but it's got some baggage, and that baggage carries a good chance of offending someone whether you meant it to or not.
  32. Mschick New Member

    English-American-deeply southern variety
    Sorry guys , I know I am late to the party, but I found this when googling the exact definition of swarthy. Here is south Mississippi it is not a word often used . You can find swarthy in novels or kinda cheesy movies , maybe toss it around playfully when chatting with your girlfriends. It would not be considered offensive at all . It holds an idea of physical traits like tall , dark and handsome but also personality traits , highly sexual , the type that could make a woman melt , but perhaps not so much the marrying kind. You know the crazy sexy bad boy with a cocky grin and a heart of gold , an air of mystery and could make the preachers wife blush .
    It is not a typically used word . It is a word used to describe romantic or sexy fantasy. When you are reading a book or describing that hot military guy you met last weekend .
    It doesn't have a Latin love or Italian hottie context , just hot , yummy and nicely tanned or beautifully dark .
    In no way would it be seen as insulting , but that's just down here on the coast . Here dark and tanned skin is seen as healthy and beautiful . Ours is a culture of outdoor sports, bbqs , and sometimes even bikinis in December . So tall ,dark and handsome really does carry a lot of personality overtones . Paler lighter skin often makes people ask " Honey , you ok ? You are lookin kinda pale today ... Have you been cooped up too long ? Need a beach day ?"
    So here on the gulf coast swarthy is not really used in public conversation, when used at all(which is honestly closer to never ) its for girl talk , always about a sexy man , So unless you wouldn't be up for being seen as super sexy it shouldn't be offensive .I can't speak for any other places or cultures . But that's how it would be used here.

    Ofcourse , there is always the problem of objectifying men as sexual creatures but I think that would be a different conversation...
  33. wildan1

    wildan1 Moderando ma non troppo (French-English, CC Mod)

    I agree with you, James; not usual nowadays.

    However, my grandmother (who was fair-skinned with blue eyes and not the most open-minded about people different from her) would use it to describe someone with a much darker complexion than her own--southern European, Latin American or Middle Eastern--and it was definitely used as code for "below me."

    This conversational usage of the term may well have disappeared; perhaps all that remains is its use in steamy novels that is a younger generation's only exposure to it.
  34. You little ripper! Senior Member

    Australian English
    I can't ever remember hearing the word in conversation, and the last time I read it in a novel would have been over 40 years ago. I've never considered it offensive,
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2016

Share This Page