Q From Dvora Yanow: Reading about peacocking as a descriptor of promenading brought to mind the English swanning around, which as an American I found highly amusing when I first heard it (we don’t, or haven’t, used it). How and why did the English pick up on swans, rather than peacocks, for this showy form of ambulatory display?
A We Brits are thoroughly conversant with peacocks and find them to be an excellent analogy for ostentation. If we say that somebody is swanning around we may indeed be implying that they’re doing it to impress, but the key idea we’re trying to express is that they’re being irresponsible or carefree, doing exactly as they like. Envy or disapproval often lies at the back of it — they’re a useless drone, the thought goes, and wouldn’t it be nice to be like that?
But the main point of buying one of these things [bus passes] is to get to school and back, not to swan about the further reaches of the West Country.
The Bath Chronicle, 11 Oct. 2012
Where do they get their money from, I want to know? Swanning about big cities with champagne lifestyles but never struggling.
The Herald (Glasgow), 17 Nov. 2012.
The early examples are from the end of the nineteenth century and simply refer to swimming like a swan. Since swans glide through the water without any apparent effort, seemingly aimless and laid-back, the idiom “swan about” came to mean ambling about without a care in the world or travelling idly or purely for pleasure.
Curiously, the evidence suggests this was initially military slang of the Second World War. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1942. This is an expanded version of it, in a news story about a tank battle between the British Eighth Army and German Panzers in North Africa:
Following their advance in the morning and early afternoon on Monday, the enemy began to show signs of disturbance at not having encountered our main tank force. Breaking up his armour into comparatively small groups of 10 or 20 or even five or six tanks, he began “swanning about”, feeling north, north-west and east for them.
Daily Telegraph, 3 Sep. 1942.
The idea of movement has become less significant as the idiom has wandered away from its avian roots:
There are kayaks for hire (from $15), or if that’s too strenuous you can take a yoga class, swan about in a hammock, strum a guitar or drip in the sauna.
New Zealand, by Charles Rawlings-Way, 2010.