To go down the swanny - Origin (Swanee, Suwannee)

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James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
The expression "to go down the swanny" (i.e. to go down the drain, to go down the pan, to go to the dogs...all referring to a scheme, a business, or anything that is headed for disaster in the near future) is one that I have known for as long as I can remember.

However, doing a quick Google search (Advanced Search with exact phrase), very few entries come up, so it does appear to be rather rare.

Also, Encarta suggests a completely different meaning in American English (Southern US English, interjection expression "pleasant surprise"). The 2 meanings appear to conflict.

The phrase seems to be mostly British English. Any idea what its origin is, and why "the swanny"? This could be regional dialect in British English - a swanny being a drain or sewer in some parts of the UK, maybe.

Thanks for insight :)
 
  • se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The expression 'sold down the river' (meaning 'betrayed') apparently refers to slaves being sold from domestic service to work in harsher conditions on plantations (located at lower altitudes among the marshes and mosquitoes).
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/326500.html

    I'm not sure whether 'sold down the Swanee' dates from the same time or whether it was adapted later because of this very popular song about the river.
    http://lyricwiki.org/Judy_Garland:Swanee
    I think that the expressions James Brandon refers to are all derived from 'sold down the Swanee'.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Thank you for the insight. A Google search reveals that both "Swanee" and "swanny" are used as alternative spellings - but the latter may be a phonetic re-interpretation of the former.

    I understand the idea of "to be sold down the river", but this is not the meaning that "to go down the swanny" appears to have, overall. "To be sold down the river" carries an idea of betrayal. (Eg: The workers felt sold down the river by management, when the redundancies were announced.)

    "To go down the swanny" merely means "to go wrong", without any particular idea of betrayal or foul play. (Eg: His business has been losing money for years - it's going down the swanny.)

    Also, why would the river in question be so prominent in this respect, and is the expression used in American English?
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I think it is a very short leap from 'sold down the Swanee' = ruined as a result of a betrayal to 'gone down the Swanee' = ruined not necessarily as a result of a betrayal.

    Oh yes, I had forgotten 'Way down upon the Swannee River'. We know both those songs about the Suwanee / Swanee river over here. I wonder which is referred to in the line 'And if you want to hear the Swanee River played in ragtime, Come on and hear, Alexander's Ragtime Band'?
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    OK, and you are all familiar with the song(s), and I am not - I assume they are sad/gloomy, or else, why would this river have been chosen for that expression? Without meaning to split hairs, I am not sure I quite understand the origin of the phrase in this respect... (But I can live without further insight!)
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I have had a good look at all the - very interesting - online resources quoted, more particularly by Teddy Bear (AKA SE16).

    I had never realized the potential/probable link between "to be sold down the river" and the slave trade in the USA, pre-Civil War. This would explain the fact that the expression means "to be betrayed".

    I must say I am less convinced by the parallel drawn between "to be sold down the river" and "to go down the Swanee". Also, I have now read the lyrics of the Swanee song and, although they are nostalgic, they are not gloomy. In other words, the person singing the song is looking forward to going (back to and) down the Swanee (River), because he/she comes from there.

    As a result, the leap from the theme of the song to the idea of failure and doom (to go down the swanny = to fail) is not obvious to me. There seems to be either a missing link (between the song and the idiomatic expression); or else the explanation swanny/Swanee is misleading and purely based on phonetics, and the origin of the idiom could be totally different... As for "to be sold down the river", this angle does not crop up at all in the Swanee song.

    In conclusion, I feel it does not really add up, but I have nothing else to suggest, I must admit. :D
     

    A90Six

    Senior Member
    England - English.
    James Brandon said:
    I have had a good look at all the - very interesting - online resources quoted, more particularly by Teddy Bear (AKA SE16).

    I had never realized the potential/probable link between "to be sold down the river" and the slave trade in the USA, pre-Civil War. This would explain the fact that the expression means "to be betrayed".

    I must say I am less convinced by the parallel drawn between "to be sold down the river" and "to go down the Swanee". Also, I have now read the lyrics of the Swanee song and, although they are nostalgic, they are not gloomy. In other words, the person singing the song is looking forward to going (back to and) down the Swanee (River), because he/she comes from there.

    As a result, the leap from the theme of the song to the idea of failure and doom (to go down the swanny = to fail) is not obvious to me. There seems to be either a missing link (between the song and the idiomatic expression); or else the explanation swanny/Swanee is misleading and purely based on phonetics, and the origin of the idiom could be totally different... As for "to be sold down the river", this angle does not crop up at all in the Swanee song.

    In conclusion, I feel it does not really add up, but I have nothing else to suggest, I must admit. :D
    I know it's way, way out there, but!

    An American company, Pope & Talbot est.1849, make or made "Swannee Toilet Paper". How popular this stuff is or was I have no idea, but if it was a well known product, the use of the paper and consequent flushing could, possibly, maybe, have produced the comic expression where the flush action was called the Swannee River. Thus, going down the Swannee - going down the pan/drain. ???? What do you think? Someone may be able to do a little research. I'll be bowled over if my theory pans out.:D

    EDIT: Some extracts fron the Pope & Talbot website.

    The timing was ideal! World War II breathed new life into the company--their fleet was called on by the US and its allies to supply vital materials(?) to troops around the globe.


    For a time, their shipping business remained strong, bringing American troops home and shipping supplies(?) to war-ravaged Europe.


    In addition to wood products, Pope & Talbot, Inc. had become the largest manufacturer of private-label tissue products in the nation, and the second largest supplier of private label disposable diapers.




    If any of these products being shipped to Europe were "Swannee Toilet Paper"???
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I must say this is quite fascinating! It does sound like the ultimate folk etymology, but on the other hand it would explain why the expression is: "to go down the swanny". It would have nothing to do with the river and all to do with the trademark. If any WordReference contributor has also been a user of Swannee "private-label tissue products" and/or "diapers" (AKA nappies, o'course), they may want to confirm. :p
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Leaving imagination and folk etymology aside for a moment, here is the opinion of the Oxford English Dictionary on the meaning and origin of 'down the Swanee'.

    '2. to go down the Swanee = to go down the drain ...; to become ruined or bankrupt. Cf. RIVER n.1 4 c. slang. 1977 Observer 21 Aug. 1/3 A senior Leyland convener..called on the Government to give Leyland ‘latitude’ in settling its pay problems. Without that, he said, the company ‘would go down the Swanee’.

    Note that the first recorded use of the expression 'down the Swanee' is from 1977, when Swannee toilet paper was history, but in the heyday of the Black and White Minstrel Show!

    By saying 'Cf. RIVER n.1 4 c.', the OED suggests that 'down the Swanee' derives from meaning 4c of the noun 'river'. The entry for meaning 4c begins as follows.

    'c. down the river, used in various senses, as: into slavery (cf. sense 4a above); finished, past, over and done with; to prison (cf. sense 4b above). colloq. (orig. U.S.). 1893 ‘MARK TWAIN’ in Century Mag. Dec. 238/1 Percy Driscoll slept well the night he saved his house-minions from going down the river...'
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    OK, so it would confirm that "to go down the Swanee" (meaning "to go down the drain") derives from the expression (or refers to the idea found in) "to be sold down the river" - where "Swanee" is taken to mean "river", if only because it is (or was) a famous river, as quoted in various songs.

    One could argue that "to go down the river" (= the Swanee) and "to go down the drain" are similar ideas, by definition (and many rivers are reduced to the state of open-air sewers in cities round the world!).

    I have noticed that both "Swanee" and "Swannee" appear to be used, but the former would be the river, and the latter the brand of toilet paper and, on balance, the expression appears to relate to the river, not to the toilet paper.

    Finally, the "swanny" spelling and related ones are, presumably, mere phonetic transcriptions by speakers who do not realise that the name of a river is involved!

    I am surprised that the expression would only have cropped up in the mid-70s - I would have expected it to have existed since the days of Mark Twain!

    Cheers.
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    If "sold down the swanny/swanee" has anything to do with the expression "sold down the river," it's no surprise to me that the hybridization came in 1977, rather than in the time of Mark Twain (who knew something about slavery).

    Slaves were "sold down" a specific river, and it wasn't the Swanee-- it was the Mississippi, which led to New Orleans where the slave markets were.

    It had nothing to do with being "demoted" from house slave to field slave-- there were field slaves everywhere, and they far outnumbered any other kind because they made money for their owners. House slaves were a luxury and status symbol. At any rate, slaves sold down the river were being gotten rid of, and this process often involved the forcible breakup of families.

    The reason the Stephen Foster song is nostalgic and not tragic or even negative (as would befit being "sold down the river") is that he was white, and of course a member of a privileged class that benefited from the old system, or felt they did in the short run.

    I think the modern expression, which implies betrayal, was being used, with a specific river named for the sole reason of being original, avoiding a cliche (as has been pointed out). The name choice might not've been the result of much conscious reflection.

    A southern river might've seemed unconsciously appropriate because of the expression "go south." When something deteriorates or starts wearing out, we say it's "going south." Your health can also go south, and so can relationships.

    I don't doubt there's a connection here with "down the river," but a lot of people don't consciously make it.
    .
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    English
    foxfirebrand said:
    Slaves were "sold down" a specific river, and it wasn't the Swanee-- it was the Mississippi, which led to New Orleans where the slave markets were.
    Should that not be "up the river"?
    Surely the slave ships landed their cargoes at a port, and the only way from there is "up" the river at the mouth of which it stands?
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Foxfirebrand gives a lot of useful and relevant background information, which confirms the interpretation put forward, initially, by Teddy Bear. (I like those pen-names, I must say.)

    Maxiogee, it is "down the river" and not "up the river" because, and this is mentioned earlier in the Thread, we are not talking about slaves being dumped on the quayside, then sold off (up the river) - but we are talking about slaves already employed on plantations, say, being got rid of by their owners for various reasons, hence the idea that they are somehow being "demoted" by being handed over to yet another master, and so on (down the river). At any rate, this is what I understood insofar as the origin of "to be sold down the river" is concerned - something Teddy Bear pointed out.
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    English
    James Brandon said:
    Maxiogee, it is "down the river" and not "up the river" because, and this is mentioned earlier in the Thread, we are not talking about slaves being dumped on the quayside, then sold off (up the river) - but we are talking about slaves already employed on plantations, say, being got rid of by their owners for various reasons, hence the idea that they are somehow being "demoted" by being handed over to yet another master, and so on (down the river). At any rate, this is what I understood insofar as the origin of "to be sold down the river" is concerned - something Teddy Bear pointed out.
    Yes, but I was arguing with the concept that any change of owner would carry any particular meaning of being "sold down the river" - a slave doesn't give a toss when sold, it is the slavery (and the level of treatment therein) which is problematic. Once the initial sale has occured, future sales would be somewhat immaterial to the slave. I couldn't accept an etymology such as that for the expression without some serious evidence.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Serious evidence?
    4. Phrases. a. to sell down the river: to sell (a troublesome slave) to the owner of a sugar-cane plantation on the lower Mississippi, where conditions were harsher than in the northern slave States; hence fig., to deliver (one) over to slavery (rare); to let down, betray. colloq. (orig. U.S.).
    OED
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    maxiogee said:
    Should that not be "up the river"?
    Surely the slave ships landed their cargoes at a port, and the only way from there is "up" the river at the mouth of which it stands?
    No.

    The importation of slaves to the U.S. was illegal after 1807. But the market at New Orleans was well-established, and it was where troublemaking, defiant or rebellious slaves were sent for resale. Slaveholding plantations existed everywhere in the South, as well as Missouri, and by any criterion the trip to New Orleans involved going downriver.
    .
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    languageGuy said:
    Being sold was a terrible event. When a young slave was sold, it meant that he would never see his family again.
    See post #17 where I said that "slaves sold down the river were being gotten rid of, and this process often involved the forcible breakup of families."

    In practice only incorrigible male slaves were sent to New Orleans for resale to the cane (and cotton) plantations. Owners who were particularly cruel would sometimes then sell the other family members off locally or regionally, breaking them up unnecessarily-- hoping to make an example, and show other men what might happen if they got rebellious.
    .
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I would not claim to be an expert in these questions, which relate to the history of the US as much as they do to language, but, I think, what is important is to realize that conditions for the slaves were not identical everywhere. In other words, conditions could be harder in one place (or state) than in another, apart from the clear geographical meaning attached to the expression "sold down the river". Clearly, slavery was (and is, since it still exists in some parts of the world) terrible across the board - but it could be even worse in certain situations than in others. This is where the meaning of the idiomatic expression does make sense, as explained by Foxfirebrand.
     

    Sabelotodo

    Senior Member
    English, United States
    maxiogee said:
    Should that not be "up the river"?
    Surely the slave ships landed their cargoes at a port, and the only way from there is "up" the river at the mouth of which it stands?
    The phrase "up the river" refers to being sent to prison. Sing Sing prison is about 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City.
     

    texluh1138

    New Member
    Uk, UK English
    I am British.

    I have read all of your posts on this subject.

    'To go down the swanny' is a phrase that is a little uncooth. It means - "go down the neck of the toilet". Most toilet necks are bendy, curved and white - just like a swan's. That's the understanding that I and my freinds always had. I
    f it was not common until the 70s in the UK, a possible explanation is that barriers started to break down in the 60s, with so called 'working class' people being shown on TV regularly for the first time in the late 60s.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Commenting on last post only now because I have been away... Your interpretation is interesting but earlier posts did suggest a link to the history of the American South and so on. Your explanation sounds a little bit like a semi-reconstructed explanation (Swanny - swan - neck of the toilets), but this does not invalidate it, strictly speaking.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Of course, there's also the slang expresssion "up the swanny", which equates to "up the creek without a paddle". The fact you can be "up" as well as "down" points (I would say) to a river-related rather than toilet-related origin....

    Loob
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Interesting point you make, and I do not seem to recall other contributors making it.

    PS - If 'up the swanny' meant 'up the toilet', it would be referring to some rather murky and unappealing bathroom practices, perhaps indulged in head first. Just as well this is not the case. :D
     

    Zawia

    New Member
    English - UK
    A Swanny whistle is a small, adjustable stopped organ pipe or else a flute (sometimes called a slide flute) often used in theatre (especially music hall and vaudeville) as a joke sound-effect. By pulling a wooden stop out while blowing it, the resultant note goes rapidly down in pitch as a suitable sound to accompany some mishap. Going up on the Swanny indicates a happier outcome. Thus, someone on stage experiencing a misfortune 'goes down the Swanny'. Scripts would be marked: 'DTS' or 'DS' an abbreviation for, "Down the Swanny" and this came into popular usage, and the theatrical origin was forgotten, whereafter people assumed it had something to do with "Way down upon the Swanny River". There is possibly a connection between the whistle and the sentimental style of singing sometimes known as 'Swanny', which featured lots of glissandos, a style to which the Swanny whistle is particularly suited. ;)
     

    RM1(SS)

    Senior Member
    English - US (Midwest)
    See post #17 where I said that "slaves sold down the river were being gotten rid of, and this process often involved the forcible breakup of families."

    In practice only incorrigible male slaves were sent to New Orleans for resale to the cane (and cotton) plantations. Owners who were particularly cruel would sometimes then sell the other family members off locally or regionally, breaking them up unnecessarily-- hoping to make an example, and show other men what might happen if they got rebellious.
    A slave being sold "down the river" wasn't necessarily being sent to New Orleans for resale - he could just be being sold directly to another plantation owner further down the river. The point was that the further down the Mississippi he went, the further south he went - and the further south he was, the less his chance of escaping to freedom in the North.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    'Up the swanny' (as opposed to 'down the swanny') would specifically relate to the 'swanny whistle' then, hence the use of 'up', which does make sense in that sense, as opposed to the sense of a river or some plumbing-related device. Interesting.
     
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