From Diddy to Lil B, dissecting the rise of hip hop's latest slang fad
Over the course of his career, rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs has shifted aliases a few times: He's been Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy and, lately, just Diddy. On Friday, though, he unveiled a new name change. Don't call him Sean anymore—call him "Swag."
It's a seven-day thing, Combs—sorry, Swag—explained in his YouTube announcement. The nickname and the Twitter account will go dormant at the end of the week, which is probably longer than the public's attention span for this particular stunt. But the music mogul could have told people to call him anything. For seven days, he could have been "Big Kenny" or "Princess Amidala." So why is he Swag?
Truth is, "swag" is having a moment. The word, derived from "swagger," has been thrown about among hip-hop fans since at least 2008, with the release of Soulja Boy's "Turn My Swag On." But over the past year, swag's profile has rocketed. In March, NCAA basketball team the Virginia Commonwealth Rams adopted the word as a rallying cry. Flavor-of-the-moment rap group Odd Future uses the word incessantly. And on any given day, Justin Bieber lays down a couple #SWAGs in his Twitter feed.
The word's definition is kind of hazy, but that's a big part of its appeal. As a noun, "swag" conveys style, confidence, triumph and power. At the end of a sentence, it can used repeatedly as an affirmation, as in, "The stakeholders were very impressed by our second-quarter earnings. Swag. Swag. Swag."
It can be an adjective, in the form of "swagged-out" (i.e. "Dean from sales and marketing always wears the most swagged-out penny loafers"). "Swag" works as a verb, too, meaning "enhance." Try this: "I swagged out my Prius with a vanity license plate and racing stripes."
"'Swag' seems to me to be especially suited to the ethos of hip hop," Ingrid Monson, a professor of music and African and African-American studies at Harvard, says. "Swag, to swagger, to carry oneself with attitude—what could be a more fitting word for hip hop?"
Without question, Berkeley rapper and meme-maker Lil B is swag's most active booster. A prolific rapper with a persona that's eccentric even by hip-hop standards (the self-professed heterosexual's upcoming album, for example, is titled I'm Gay), B's best-loved songs are languid tributes to "swagged-out" celebrities like Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton, even Dr. Phil, where each line is punctuated with a declarative "swag."
"'Swag' is an emotion, it's a feeling," Lil B tells The Atlantic. "It's just a positive word, man, you know. It's like 'dope,' man. When I say 'swag' on my songs, it's just cool. It's like: dope. Great. The best. Everything."
Lil B has no problem at all with Diddy commandeering his favorite word.
"I support it, man," he says. "Diddy been had swag. So he deserves that. Diddy showed me love out the gate. He's a legend, a hip-hop pioneer. I got love for Puff man. Puff is swag."
But what does the future hold for "swag"? Slang words come and go. For every "cool," there are a dozen "jiggy"s. For instance, hip-hop artists no longer refer to their shiny things as "bling bling," the once-hot phrase invented by rapper Lil Wayne's original crew the Cash Money Millionaires, which made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003. Your great-aunt Tammy is the only person who says "bling" now.
Lil B does not expect the same fate for "swag." He thinks people will be saying it for decades to come.
"It's gonna be lasting, man," he says. "It's hitting hard right now. It's crucial. Other than curse words, it's gotta be in the top ten most used slang words."
Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at UC Berkeley's School of Information, disagrees. He says chances are slim that "swag" will endure the way "cool" has. "Cool," he explains, is an anomaly, the very rare slang word that has survived a pattern of cultural transferal, making its way from the 1920s jazz era to the '50s beat generation through writers like Norman Mailer and Chandler Brossard, to 60s-era hippies, from surfer subculture to nerdspeak to rap, and on and on.
"But that's very weird if a word does that," Nunberg says. "Almost all of these words come in and then disappear. Because that's the point—high school freshmen and young management consultants spin off new words so that their language sounds different from [that of] the old boys. Obviously, some of them do persist, but it's very hard to predict which ones will.
Swag's rise has followed that of the word that spawned it. "Swagger" has long held an occasional presence in rap, but it was British rapper/singer M.I.A.'s 2007 number "Paper Planes" that really ignited the term's viral spread. "No one on the corner has swagger like us," she sang on the hit single from her second album, Kala. Then T.I. sampled the line for 2009's "Swagga Like Us," which featured fellow hip-hop leviathans Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Jay-Z. From there on, "swagger" became a go-to for pop artists ranging from the Black Eyed Peas to Ke$ha. The word even spawned its own sub-idiom, to "swagger-jack," meaning to copy another person's style.
Of course, "swag" has a few hundred years under its belt before that, going back to Australian colloquial use meaning "stolen goods" in the 1800s (a sense still carried in the "swag bags" given to celebrities at award shows). The word was first used in the 1530s, meaning "to sway" or "to rock," from the Norwegian "Svagga."
So yes, "swag" had come a long way before Diddy made it his own. But it would be nowhere without Lil B's sense of irony.
"I didn't used to like that word," he says. "I used to hate 'swag.' And then, I started saying it on my songs as a joke. I was like 'swag.' It was funny to me. And then it just started getting serious. I'd be like 'swag!' And then I started loving it. It was history from there."