Swath vs. Swatch

By Maeve Maddox

A reader sent me this extract, asking if it might provide material for a post topic:

Charles Darwin did a fine job of showing why his theory of evolution explained the living world better than any creationist ideas could, and evidence has piled up ever since, but a swatch of the American public remain unconvinced.

The reader was referring to the use of swatch where the context calls for swath.

The example appeared in Forbes Magazine. The editors there have since corrected swatch to swath and even include the following addendum: “An earlier version of this story contained a typo in the word swath.”

Unfortunately, about 172 other sites, which copied part or all of the original Forbes article, continue to display the error. I have found the same error—perhaps they are also typos—on news sites. Here are two:

During the visit to the site where construction has started and a smoothened dirt road cuts through a wide swatch of the land where olive trees used to stand, border police arrived.—Catholic News.

Stanley denounced the demand that American Jews “unequivocally support Israel against criticism” when “Israeli policies of the moment can and do betray values held by a large swatch of American Jewry.”—Progressive.

swatch and swath convey opposite ideas. A swatch is small; a swath, when used figuratively, usually connotes something large or wide.

The etymology of swatch is unknown. The word originally referred to a tag, something like the stub of a raffle ticket, attached to a piece of cloth before it was placed in a kettle to be dyed. The word has come to mean “a sample piece of cloth.” That’s still the common meaning, although swatch can also refer to color samples of paint, ink, or dye.

One could refer to “a large swatch” compared to “a small swatch” in the context of a fabric or color sample, but in the context of land or people, swath is the word to use. The plural of swatch is swatches.

Unlike swatch, the noun swath has a known etymology. It comes from an Old English word that meant “track, footstep, trace, scar, vestige.” One such track or trace is the mark made in mown grass by a scythe or lawnmower:

One swing of a machete cuts a swath perhaps 20 inches long and 2 inches wide. Compare this with one swing of a scythe, which can easily cut a swath 6 feet long by 4 inches wide.

If you don’t like the look of the swaths of mown grass you will need to rake them up after you mow.

Another use of swath is to refer to a section of land, usually longer than it is wide:

Russia just claimed a broad swath of the Arctic shelf

Heat wave continues to stifle large swath of U.S.

Used figuratively, swath refers to a large number or to a cross-section of a population:

Despair, disposability, and unnecessary human suffering now engulf large swaths of the American people.

Urban Trope Misses a Large Swath of Black Consumers

Swatch is pronounced with the broad a of father.

Swath is pronounced in so many ways that I’ve written a separate post on the topic for next week. I pronounce swath with the broad a of father and the unvoiced sound of th as in thin.

Swathe [swaythe] functions as both a noun and as a verb.

As a noun, swathe means “a band of linen, woolen, or other material in which something is enveloped.”

As a verb, swathe means, “to envelop in a swathe or swathes; to wrap up, swaddle, bandage.”

Note: The verb swaddle is related to swathe. To swaddle a baby is to wrap it up snugly in a swathe of cloth. The Old and New Testaments contain references to the practice of wrapping a newborn in swaddling bands:

And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.—Luke 2:7, (RSV).

And as for your birth, on the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with bands.—Ezekiel 16:4 (RSV).

[Where were you] when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling
band [?]—Job 38:9 (RVS).

Both the OED and Merriam-Webster show swathe as an alternative spelling for swath. My own practice is to use the spelling swath [swahth] for the track a mower leaves and swathe [swaythe] for wrapping things up in long pieces of cloth.

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2 Responses to “Swath vs. Swatch”

  • thebluebird11

    In medical use, there is a wrapping used for shoulder injuries. It has been called “sling and swath,” and consists of a sling being applied to the injured shoulder, followed by a tight wrap that goes around the upper arm on the injured side, around the chest, designed to prevent the person from moving the injured arm/shoulder. When I first became a PA, I assumed it was spelled “sling and swathe,” but nobody else spelled it that way, and nobody pronounced it “swathe” (i.e. swayth, with a “hard” TH at the end). I don’t have much occasion to use the word in either the oral or written form, because I don’t do orthopedics. But wouldn’t swathe be correct, and pronounced to rhyme with bathe?

  • Maeve

    thebluebird11,
    Judging by one of the definitions in the OED, I’d say that “swathe” rhymes with “bathe” is the original word in “sling and swath/e.” However, the spellings “swath” and “swathe,” and possibly the pronunciations /swath/ and /swaythe/, have been mixed up for a long time:
    c.1.c A surgical bandage.1615 Crooke Body of Man Pref. 1 Engines, Swathes, Ties, Bands and Ligatures, described by Hippocrates.
    1656 J. Smith Pract. Physick 162 Swaths, which are either of leather‥or of wollen.    
    1722 Douglas in Phil. Trans. XXXII. 85, I turn’d a swath a little broader than the Patient’s Hand once round him.    
    1806 J. Beresford Miseries Hum. Life iii. (ed. 3) 43 My limping gait, and this bewitching swathe about my head.    
    1897 Allbutt’s Syst. Med. II. 376 Strips of lint‥may be laid along the‥swelling‥and covered with the flannel swathe as before.

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