Thursday, March 26, 2009


swarthy [SWORE-thē]
adj. having a dark complexion or color

[From German schwarz ("black"), earlier Gothic swarts]

Yiddish took the same root word from German and came up with shvartzeh, meaning black. The English swarthy, however, is descriptive of skin color, but isn't limited to black people of African heritage. Anyone who is darker-skinned than your typical white Brit, such as an Italian normally is, qualifies as swarthy. According to the dictionaries I've checked, swarthy evolved in English from swart, meaning the same thing.

The governor of Kal-ee-for-nee-uh's last name, Schwarzenegger, has, of course, schwarzen in it, meaning black. There seems to be disagreement as to what the -egger means. Arnold says it means "plowman," making his name translate as Blackplowman. Others have said -egger is "field." This maven on German names says the Terminator's name derives from "das schwarze Eck," meaning "Black-corner." No one apparently disagrees, though, that the first part of Schwarzenegger is black.

According to my dictionary, the word swarthy is first used in English in 1570. Shortly thereafter, Shakespeare tried it out in Act II, Scene 6 of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In this soliloquy, Proteus -- one of the gentlemen -- who left behind in Verona a possible lover, Julia, doesn't know what to do, after having fallen in love in Milan with Silvia, who is possibly the lover of his friend, Valentine -- the other gentleman:
I cannot leave to love, and yet I do;
But there I leave to love where I should love.
Julia I lose and Valentine I lose:
If I keep them, I needs must lose myself;
If I lose them, thus find I by their loss
For Valentine myself, for Julia Silvia.
I to myself am dearer than a friend,
For love is still most precious in itself;
And Silvia—witness Heaven, that made her fair!—
Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope.

In Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick, a chaplain named Father Mapple, preaching to seafarers in the Whaleman’s Chapel, recounts the Biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. Melville, here, uses swarthy to describe Father Mapple's dark-skinned forehead:
While he was speaking these words, the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher, who, when describing Jonah's sea-storm, seemed tossed by a storm himself. His deep chest heaved as with a ground-swell; his tossed arms seemed the warring elements at work; and the thunders that rolled away from off his swarthy brow, and the light leaping from his eye, made all his simple hearers look on him with a quick fear that was strange to them. .

1 comment:

Aritul said...

I have never associated the word with black skin. For me, swarthy conjures up images of Italians, Greeks, other southern Europeans, North Africans, and Middle Easterners. I would even venture to say that there are many Latin Americans whose skin color embodies the term.