In a rather imaginative assessment of the Civil War during an interview with Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner, President Trump called Andrew Jackson a “swashbuckler” who could have avoided the American Civil War. Putting aside Trump’s grasp of American history, let’s get a firmer grasp on the history of his colorful word, swashbuckler.
The word swashbuckler starts blustering in English in the mid-1500s. It’s a compound of swash, “to make a noise like clashing swords” and buckler, “a small, round shield.” So, swashbucklers are literally “ones who make noise by striking their swords on the their own or their opponents’ shields,” a vivid depiction of a “swaggering ruffian,” later extended to “flamboyant adventurer” and often now associated with pirates.
Swash itself is probably imitative in origin. Its earliest record is as a noun in the 1520s, when it referred, not so boastfully, to “wet refuse” like “pigswill” or “hogwash,” originally kitchen slop fed to pigs. A few decades later, swash was describing “the sound of a heavy blow” and by the 1670s, swash specifically characterized the “sound of dashing water.” The original sense of swash, then, seems to echo the slopping and splashing of water against hard objects, maybe even the swash of pigswill as its dumped into a trough. In the mid-1500s, when it was joined with buckler, the verbal swash also made metaphorical noise as “bluster” or “swagger”—the latter word likely being a frequentative of swag, “to sway,” as a bumptious swordsman might do his weapon, and which comes from a Scandinavian verb that etymologist Walter Skeat thinks may have influenced swash.
A buckler, attested in the early 1300s, was typically a handheld shield used to ward off blows. It comes, via Old French, from the Latin *bucculārius, “having a boss,” which is the round part in the center of a shield. *Bucculārius, in turn, comes form buccula, literally a “little cheek,” with buccula the diminutive form of bucca, “cheek.” In Latin, buccula named a “cheek strap for a helmet” or “the boss of shield,” whose knobby shape was thought to resemble a puffy cheek. Buccula also yields buckle, like a belt buckle, the form of shield bosses likened to the metal rings, metal rings transferred to the various clasps we fasten as buckles.
So, etymologically, can we understand swashbuckler as “cheeky hogwash”? That would be a stretch—but perhaps an too fitting description for Trump’s unusual “swashbuckling” take on the Civil War.