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Swan-upping

It was reported in the Washington Post in July 2010 that the Queen was considering how to reduce the cost of running the British monarchy, one suggestion being to lay off her official Swan Marker. (The British media didn’t mention this; perhaps the idea of the Queen having one in the first place to get rid of didn’t seem so strange to them as it does to Americans.)

The report came a week before that official took part in an annual ceremony on a seventy-mile stretch of the River Thames upstream from London: swan-upping. It’s not as rude as it sounds: it’s an annual census in which the mute swans and their cygnets are upped — taken up from the river to be inspected and marked.

The census — it takes five days — is operated by the Swan Marker and the Swan Uppers of two of the ancient trade guilds of London, the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies. The census is said to date from the twelfth century, at a time when the sovereign claimed ownership of all swans (they were valuable birds that were served up at banquets and feasts).

These days, royal ownership is claimed only on the Thames and some tributaries and — you may be pleased to learn — the Queen doesn’t actually eat any of her swans. The birds used to be tagged by nicks on their beaks — which is why the Swan Marker has that name — but these days are ringed on their legs.

As a side-note, there are several pubs in England that have the name Swan With Two Nicks. Two nicks put on a swan’s bill at the time of swan-upping signified that it was owned by the Vintners, hence the connection with pubs. The link has often puzzled people. Down the centuries several such pubs changed their names to Swan With Two Necks, in the toponymic equivalent of popular etymology. The oldest that I know of used to be in London, mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary for 4 April 1664. There was one called the Swann with Two Knecks, in Chorley, Lancashire, a double distancing from the original, though what the heck a kneck is, I’ve no idea (the name has recently been changed to the more common Swan With Two Necks).

Page created 24 Jul. 2010
Last updated 29 Jul. 2010

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-swa2.htm
Last modified: 29 July 2010.