Q&A: Swan song

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re tapping our toes to the swan song…

Q: Hi AWC, can you talk to me about a “swan song”?

A: Cheer, cheer the red and the white! Honour the name by day and by night! Lift that noble banner–

Q: No, you misunderstand me. Not the footy team Sydney Swans’ song. I’m talking about the idiom “swan song”.

A: Right. Okay. Well, Macquarie Dictionary defines “swan song” as “a final speech, performance, public appearance, etc., before one gives up a position, project, activity, etc.” Usually it’s reserved for people at the end of their careers or before dying.

Q: How did it get this name?

A: Well, it goes back to the ancient Greeks and their belief that the swan was silent through its life, only to burst into song immediately before death.

Q: Is this actually the case?

A: Well, no. Most swans make some kind of sound all their life, and certainly don’t go all “Amateur Theatre Company” when dying. Of course, it didn’t really matter by the time it had entered into popular culture and had been written about by everyone from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Tennyson.

Q: Wow, no stopping that runaway swan.

A: That’s right. There was even a concerto written about it, as well as a short ballet – The Dying Swan (1905) – famously performed by Anna Pavlova.

Q: Sounds delicious. Is that part of Swan Lake?

A: Nope. Unrelated.

Q: So when did the idiom “swan song” first appear?

A: The definition of “swan song” referring to a final work, appearance, performance or tour took hold in the mid 1800s, and was firmly established by 1900.

Q: Examples?

A: “Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl in his swan song season.” OR “The Hollywood Bowl concerts turned out to be Tom Petty’s swan song.”

Q: So it’s the last significant act before retiring or dying?

A: Generally, yes. Just like a swan sings before death. Even though it doesn’t. But yeah.

Q: Right. And it’s definitely not “swan-song” with a hyphen?

A: Some people do this, but we recommend two separate words.

Q: And it has nothing whatsoever to do with Natalie Portman or the 2010 film Black Swan?

A: What? No, of course not.

Q: What about Natalie Portman in the 2002 film Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith?

A: Again, no. Although that was probably George Lucas’ swan song as a director.

Q: Okay then. Good talk.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like us to explore, reply and tell us all about it.

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