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In search of 'swag'

To me, it meant stolen goods; but what did it mean to my teen son?

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How rich American slang has become. I feel as if I am hanging on for dear life as the language shifts and morphs around me, leaving me at sea in an increasingly unfamiliar vernacular. Such are the wages of the passing years.

The latest fragment to arrive on the shores of my ignorance is "swag." When my 16-year-old son first uttered it, I was caught off guard. Here's what he said in reference to one of his friends: "Jesse's got swag." Now, in my experience, swag has two meanings: It refers to either stolen goods or a collection of goodies, such as the boxes of toiletries that colleges distribute to students at the beginning of the school year. But when I said to my son, "Where did Jesse get it?" he regarded me with a pained expression and asked, incredulously, "What are you talking about?"

When I explained what I understood "swag" to mean, Anton laughed – laughed! – at me. Then he shook his head. "OK," I said. "Then what does 'swag' mean?" His answer: "If you had it, you'd know."

There it was: I had to first have swag in order to know what it meant. A perfect Catch-22. So I sought another route to enlightenment – the seventh-grader I mentor in the local middle school. During one of our sessions, as we pored over his Spanish homework, I broached the delicate topic. "Do you know what swag is?" I asked him. "Sure," he said. "It means that you're cool."

Ah, so simple, but yet so proprietary that my own son couldn't admit me to the cabala of its meaning. Pressing my luck, I swallowed my dignity and quietly asked my mentee, "Do you think I have it?" Without taking his eyes from his work, he shrugged, "Yeah, you've got a lot of it."


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