Swinging the lead
Posted: 19 September 2007 01:51 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I’ve often wondered about the origin of this expression, which is Rightpondian slang for “malingering”, usually by feigning illness, especially in the armed services. A Google search tells me that a lot of other people have wondered about it too (over 2 million hits on “swinging the lead”, many questions), not to much effect. Lots of folk etymology (much of it from people with no idea at all of what is involved in taking soundings at sea with a lead; they seem to think it was a cushy job). Even mr. Quinion admits to not having much to offer concerning the etymology of this term, though his examination of the subject does away with a lot of the rubbish. Perhaps someone here has something substantial to offer --- if not of etymology, then perhaps of earliest recorded use?

(I apologize if this has already been discussed before my time)

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Posted: 19 September 2007 02:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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OED, s.v. lead:

6. a. A ‘bob’ or lump of lead suspended by a string to ascertain the depth of water; a sounding-lead. Phrases, to cast, heave the lead. to arm the lead: to fill the hollow in the lead with tallow in order to discover the nature of the bottom by the substances adhering (Smyth Sailor’s Word-bk. 1867 s.v. Arm). [...].

  b. Phr. to swing the lead: to idle, to shirk; to malinger. slang. Hence in similar phrs. and in Comb., as lead-swing n. and v. intr., -swinger, -swinging vbl. n. and ppl. a.
1917 To-Day 6 Jan. 243/3 It is evident that he had ‘swung the lead’ (using Army phrase) until he got his discharge. 1918 B. K. ADAMS Let. 25 Jan. in Amer. Spirit 71 Lead-swingers are those that stall along, doing as little as they possibly can, hoping the war will be over before they finish. 1922 C. E. MONTAGUE Disenchantment iv. 56 Then grey hairs should be a lot of use to you..when you want to get swinging the lead. [..]1927 Daily Express 2 Mar. 3/4 He said he.. had been ‘swinging the lead’ for the purpose of getting a permanent pension. 1930 S. BECKETT Whoroscope 1 The vile old Copernican lead-swinging son of a sutler! 1939 R. CAMPBELL Flowering Rifle II. 60 It was not we who lead-swung to the Pities, When half the loveliest of our ancient cities Were in the clouds rebuilt. 1940 J. B. PRIESTLEY Postscripts 70 A wary.. old soldier, a lead-swinger, a dodger of the column. 1952 M. ALLINGHAM Tiger in Smoke iv. 77 He went sick… It was so hopeless, so damned silly and forlorn as a lead-swing that in the end he got away with it. 1957 A. GRIMBLE Return to Islands ii. 32 Their number was not without its natural quota of cheerful leadswingers[...] 1972 Daily Colonist (Victoria, B.C.) 12 Feb. 4/1 The mayor of Victoria accuses the four Greater Victoria members of the legislature of lead-swinging. [...]

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Posted: 19 September 2007 02:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I found an old incidental reference by aldi in which he claims it’s on the big list, but if ‘twere so, ‘tis no longer.

FWTW, which isn’t much, here are two previous discussions.
swing the lead
phrase (one of those memorable thread titles so beloved by newbies)

Seeing that it seems to have originated in the army, but appears to refer to a nautical activity, is it possible that it arose as an interservice insult, like “Air Force gloves” for pockets, or “marine [officer]” for an empty bottle?

[ Edited: 19 September 2007 02:46 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 20 September 2007 06:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Dr. Techie - 19 September 2007 02:39 PM

I found an old incidental reference by aldi in which he claims it’s on the big list, but if ‘twere so, ‘tis no longer.

FWTW, which isn’t much, here are two previous discussions.
swing the lead
phrase (one of those memorable thread titles so beloved by newbies)

Seeing that it seems to have originated in the army, but appears to refer to a nautical activity, is it possible that it arose as an interservice insult, like “Air Force gloves” for pockets, or “marine [officer]” for an empty bottle?

That makes sense. I can well imagine soldiers packed into troopships (in all likelihood being kept busy by ‘bulling’ their boots, cleaning their equipment, etc) watching a sailor leisurely sounding the depths and envying the tar’s lot. It’s a small step from there to ‘swinging the lead’ as a description of an idler.

I must have been mistaken about the Big List, I can’t see Dave removing the phrase.

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Posted: 20 September 2007 09:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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’Lead-pipe cinch’ means easy, too. Can’t find anything to suggest a connection though

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Posted: 20 September 2007 12:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Perhaps Aldi was referring to screw the pooch / fuck the dog, which is an entry on the Big List and, originally at least, meant the same thing as swing the lead; it’s military slang too, only American, rather than British.

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Posted: 21 September 2007 01:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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to fill the hollow in the lead with tallow in order to discover the nature of the bottom by the substances adhering

In case anyone was wondering why anyone would do that, in the days before the invention of accurate timepieces made it possible to calculate longitude properly, sailors would lower the lead to the sea bottom and bring up a sample of the seabed attached to the tallow, so that they could check what was below them - fine sand, mud, or whatever. Charts were marked with what the seabed was known to be like at different locations, and navigators could check to see if the sample brought up matched with what the seabed was recorded as being like at the point they had calculated they were at by dead reckoning. If it didn’t match, of course, they knew they were off-course ...

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Posted: 21 September 2007 10:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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The nature of the sea-bottom also told a captain how securely he could expect his anchor or anchors to hold

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