The Many Uses of “Swipe”

By Maeve Maddox

Ben writes:

I have noticed the changing in usage of words. When I was growing up “to swipe a card” (credit cards were not around then) meant to steal it and now you see the term “swipe the customer’s card.”

No one’s quite sure where this word swipe originated. It’s kin to sweep and swoop. All three words suggest a wide sweeping motion. They can be used as nouns or as verbs.

A batter takes a swipe at the ball. (noun)
A waiter swipes a table with a towel. (verb)
A hawk swoops down on a chicken. (verb)

Macduff, learning of the murder of his family, cries:

All? What, All my pretty Chickens, and their Damme,
At one fell swoope?” (noun)

A housewife sweeps the steps. (verb)
An opera diva sweeps onto the stage in a long gown. (verb)
A card player makes a clean sweep of all the stakes. (noun)

The compound noun sweepstakes, meaning “prize won in a race or contest” entered the language in 1773. An earlier form of the word, swepestake existed in Middle English with the meaning “one who sweeps or wins all the stakes in a game.” King Henry VII of England had a ship with that name.

The verb sideswipe, “to strike with a glancing blow,” dates from 1917. Its most common use is in speaking of vehicles: His mother was sideswiped by a driver in a green pickup truck.

Swipe with the meaning of “to steal” is a latecomer, dating from 1889. This meaning is said to have originated as theatrical slang used of actors stealing jokes or stage routines from one another.

Like Ben, I would have thought, growing up, that “to swipe a card” meant to steal it. That sense of swipe is still current.

Swipe meaning “to run a credit card” came into use in the 1990s. In practice there’s probably not much chance of confusing the two meanings because context will make the difference clear:

I swiped my credit card.
The clerk swiped my credit card.
Somebody swiped my credit card.

Another popular use of swipe in the expression “to take a swipe at” with the meaning “to criticize” or “to make a verbal attack on” or even, perhaps, as in the Google quotation below, “to threaten”:

Lindsey Graham Takes Another Swipe At Glenn Beck

Google Takes Another Swipe at Newspapers And Magazines With Fast Flip

‘The Vampire Diaries takes a swipe at Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight

The New Yorker takes a swipe at everyone

Clearly swipe is a word we like to use in a variety of contexts.

My only suggestion is that I’d avoid using swipe as a synonym for “to steal” in a serious context.

It’s acceptable enough when used in a non-larcenous context among friends:
Who swiped the last donut?
He was drinking, so I swiped his car keys.

Used of real crimes of theft, it becomes a euphemism to soften a vicious act.

For example, this headline about the two juveniles who stole weapons from a gun cabinet and went on to murder five people and wound ten others:

School shooters swiped guns from unlocked rack

and these:

Criminals swipe cables to cash in on soaring value of scrap metal

… the victim left his building, which is near 75th Street, the night before only to return at 10 am to discover his vintage basketball cards, valued at $2,000, had been swiped.

I see no reason to avoid the stronger and more precise word steal in such contexts.

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1 Response to “The Many Uses of “Swipe””

  • Dan Lafrenière

    I hope that you meant ‘quiet’ as a synonym for placid. ‘Quite’ is an adverb as you should well know. Quite!

    Keep up the good work anyway (you are forgiven).

    Cheers,
    Dan Lafrenière

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