Our new King, Charles III, spoke in his tribute to his late mother of her “unswerving devotion” to her duty and to the nation. We’ve heard the word “unswerving” a lot in the last few weeks: it goes naturally, it seems, with “duty” and “commitment”.
“Swerving” has, for centuries, carried the meaning of deviating from a set course. The word “swerve” takes up a column in the OED with many slightly varied meanings. It’s an intransitive verb, and none of its slightly varied senses involves a direct object. It derives from an Old English word, “sweorfan” which had connotations of haste and disorder; our “swarm” is from the same root.
But now we encounter another meaning of the verb “to swerve”, which has suddenly appeared in many contexts, I don’t know how or why: in these cases it has taken on exactly the same sense as the familiar word “to avoid”. This is being replaced by “swerve” which has always possessed a recognised and quite different sense of its own. In the process, “swerve” has acquired a transitive function – it now takes a direct object. I take examples from widely differing sources, which demonstrate that the new usage has penetrated many strata of the active language:
“Liz Truss swerves questions on pay £10 to see your GP report” – Mirror headline, August 2022
“Those little darlings between two and five who have ADHD … can swerve the book [Kamala Harris’s Superheroes are Everywhere] and instead attend a “Superhero Training Course” run by the Little Hero Company …”
“[The Russian humorist and political commentator Konstantin Kisin] was asked to sign a “behavioural agreement form” promising to swerve humour which might not be “respectful and kind …”” both Spectator, 30 July 2022.
“[Robert Crawford, author of Eliot after the Waste Land, quotes] the last clause from the sentence above … Yet this leaves untouched Eliot’s intriguing self-positioning near Othello’s self-cheering rhetoric. It also swerves the significant challenge to the biographer that lodges in Eliot’s middle clause: what to do, in the story of a writer’s life, with a claim of impersonality… ” – LRB 8 September 2022 p. 5.
These examples use “swerve” in several senses, though all of them variants of “to avoid”. Their implied meanings are “to avoid answering”, “to renounce”, “to ignore”, “to dodge or shy away from”. Now, who has decided that “avoid” is a term that needs to be so firmly avoided that another word with quite a different meaning must be dragooned into service instead? Once again I’m astonished at the speed with which the new expression has established itself. It’s as though the language was being reconstructed before our very eyes: a process that might once have taken a generation is now accomplished in a few weeks. Dizzying – can’t we have a period of mourning for the old word before we’re forced to accept the new one?
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