Swot!

In British English the word swot (/swɒt/) means to study or work hard – you might swot for your exams if you’re a swot (someone who works/studies hard). You might also swot up on something. Calling someone a swot, or a little swot, can be a kind of insult, perhaps with undertones of envy or even guilt – you might think that you should really be swotting as well.

According to the OED swot, or swat, is a dialect variant of sweat and originated at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Surrey, where William Wallace, a Scottish professor of mathematics, apparently once said, ‘It mades one swot’ (= sweat), and it first appeared in print in 1850.

Other words with the same or similar meanings include to mug up on, to bone up on, and to cram for. Cramming isn’t quite the same as swotting though, as it usually involves trying to fit as much knowledge into your head as you can in a relatively short in preparation for an exam or test. Swotting can mean this, and can also mean doing all the work / study you’re given, and perhaps more than that – i.e. making more effort than strictly necessary – something that some people prefer not to be accused of.

Are there words in American English or other varieties of English with similar connotations to swot?

In French the word for a swot is bachoteur(-euse), and to swot (for an exam) is potasser (un examen) – do these have any of the connotations of swot?

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This entry was posted in English, Etymology, French, Language.

11 Responses to Swot!

  1. Ingus says:

    In Latvian there is a argotic verb “zubrīties” and the noun “zubris” which seem to have more or less the same connotations and use as “swot”, with the added accusation (when used as an insult) that the person has nothing better to do with their lives.

  2. michael farris says:

    There used to be “grind” in at least American (don’t know about UK) but it was only a noun for the person and not a verb ime. And later slang meanings of grind have moved away from …. legitimate activities.

  3. Petréa Mitchell says:

    “Cramming” exists in American English with the same definition you describe here. Terms like “brainiac”, “nerd”, or “geek” could be used in a similar semi-derisive manner as “swot”, but they don’t really match the specific meaning.

    I can’t think of any parallels to “swotting up”– I’d just say “studying”, or to be a little slangier, “hitting the books”.

  4. The standard etymology of “swot” — which may be a folk etymology, but if so an extremely widespread one — is that “swot” is an acronym for “Study Without Teachers”, referring to that week before exams (SWOT-week) in which students have no classes to attend and are expected to use this time for unsupervised study.

    I write this for the benefit of Americans, as I expect British/Australian readers to already know it.

  5. LandTortoise says:

    Also in English “crammer” – place where students pay to be crammed. The equivalent institutions exist also in France where they go under the name “boite au bac”. (The “i” has a circumflex but I don’thave one on my keyboard)

  6. michael farris says:

    There’s kujon in Polish, similar to grind or nerd in English but with an additional connotation that the kujon just memorizes things without necessarily understanding them.

    The verb wkuć is used for cramming (or short term rote memorization in place of learning).

    The Polish education emphasizes memorizing lots of things….

  7. Matthew says:

    It’s interesting because here in Australia, we have SWOTVAC, which sometimes stands for “Studying WithOut Teaching Vacation”. This is usually before final Year 12 exams, and University Exams. I’m sure that “swot” can go two ways here.

  8. TJ says:

    @michael farris: hehe trust me, it’s not only in Polish education where student got to memorize things… it’s almost every where now.

  9. Petréa Mitchell says:

    LandTortoise: In American English we have “cram school” for “crammer”.

  10. Juan Shimmin says:

    @Adrian: actually, I’ve never heard of that etymology, despite being a Brit. I’d be a bit surprised, given that swot goes back so far and my general impression is that acronyms didn’t really take off until the mid-C20th (though that’s completely unempirical).

  11. Nick says:

    In Canadian English you have “keener” someone who studies/tries very hard, and can also mean something along the lines of “brown-noser”.