Word Usage of ‘Swag’ vs. ‘Schwag’


Every once in awhile I think the meaning of slang words becomes so ingrained that we tend to forget the origin or evolution. Or in some cases I feel the meanings of two similar slang words intersect and become interchangeable to the point that no one knows which one to use. Such is the case with the usage of ‘swag’ versus ‘schwag.’

For a long time, I always thought that it was simple: swag is free stuff, like when a promoter sends you a cd or those gift bags they give Oscar nominees. Meanwhile, my former hippie high school days informs me that schwag is bad pot. Easy right?

So for some reason it drives me crazy when someone refers to free stuff as ‘schwag.’ Seemed to me like they were confusing the meanings. So I tried to get internet verification. Unfortunately the closest reputable source was Urban Dictionary, which is not quite official sounding, but often at least up to date on latest slang trends. Here’s what I found:


1. appearance, style, or the way he or she presents themselves.

To move over an area of surface with confidence, appearance, and style by taking steps with the feet at a pace slower than a run.

v. swagged, swagg-ing, swags
v. intr.

See Swagger.

He got a killa swag.

2. Promotional merchandise for a band, record label, or other entity in the music business, usually distributed at concerts.

May include t-shirts, stickers, promo CDs, posters, etc. Often free, but not necessarily; a t-shirt or record purchased at a concert might still be considered swag, especially if it is a design or release that is not readily available in the mass market.

Many independent record labels throw in a handful of free swag when they ship out mail-order packages (stickers, sampler CDs, etc).

The chief difference between swag and regular merchandise is that its purpose is not to make a profit, but to promote the band/label, and reward its supporters by giving them something cool and unique.

I picked up some great swag at the concert last night.


1. Term used to describe low grade marijuana.
This type of marijuana is usually brown, seedy, dry. The term is also used by many pot heads to describe anything that is low grade.

I hate smoking schwag, but i cant get any dank right now so i guess i’ll have to.

2. Any free or extra goods, usually given to employees or workers.

Then on the etymology blog Take Our Word I found this which discusses the potential connections between the two words:

…it did suggest a Yiddish influence on the variant pronunciations of swag AND on the derivation of schwag “low-grade [weak] marijuana”. We did not get to continue our research into the Yiddish word at the time, but we did happen to find it tonight: shvakh “weak”. The existence of that word does make plausible the connection between Yiddish and shwag/schwag. It certainly doesn’t prove the connection, but it definitely suggests that further research in this area is required.

They also reference an older article which says:

In the 17th century we find swag recorded as slang for a shop that sold cheap trinkets. Then by the late 18th century we find it with the meaning “a thief’s plunder or booty” – those same cheap trinkets? Today’s equivalent would be the plush toy animal prizes that line carnival game stalls. So it appears that the cheap promotional items one gets at movie publicity parties and auto shows were equated with the cheap stuff given as prizes at carnival game booths or the trinkets sold at cheap stores, and so named.

As you can see, while not totally conclusive, for the most part I was right… and yet the second definition of schwag implies I am ALSO wrong. This does not however even get to the fact that ‘schwag’ can be ‘swag’ if you get it in the mail from a promoter. I imagine that the pot reviewers at the classy magazine High Times, get schwag as swag all the time…much like music reviewers get free cds.

So when it comes to referring to promotional items, which is it? Can anyone else settle this debate? (Obviously I’m bored out of my mind.)

10 thoughts on “Word Usage of ‘Swag’ vs. ‘Schwag’”

  1. I think the Urban Dictionary often references definitions, even if they are incorrect, simply because they are used incorrectly so often (and because idiots vote on the user-created definitions). While certain things become acceptable over time due to frequent and common misuse, such as the pronunciation of “forte” and the usage of “hopefully,” I don’t think “schwag” falls into this category. Also, for a laugh, check out some of the definitions in the Urban Dictionary for “irregardless.”

  2. What is interesting to me is how commonly I hear people perhaps misuse it (that is if it is indeed being misused). I wonder how quickly one person mis-hearing or confusing the two spreads to many people doing the same thing.

    Here at NPR we have no shortage of swag from book publishers, band promoters, and studios to get the word out about said band, author, movie, tv show etc they are hoping to dig up some promotion for. Usually it is simply an early advance copy of the cd or book or dvd with perhaps a one-sheet (bio page), and some press clippings.

    Other times though, that swag can be a media blitz of tshirts, little toys and trinkets and often foods to market the product. For all intents and purposes though, I think it does work to draw our attention to whatever it is they’re hocking.

    Check out the A.V. Club‘s funny roundup of worthless free crap they got.
    Then there’s the other type of swag given away at conventions, seminars and festivals…basically a goodie bag of postit notes, pens, magazines or whatever..much like the kind given out at SXSW (linked here). Fun stuff.

  3. i think it’s simple why swag can be interchangeable with schwag–it comes from the insertion of the yiddish/german ‘ch’ behind the ‘s’ that people use w/ slang to be funny. i would say the origin comes from schtick, schabang, and the yiddish-influenced like. thus we have things like schweet! and schmeal (actually that last one is almost the same as schwag–shmeal and schmeal have different meanings, the latter w/ a pot reference, but it now gets used for shmeal).

    just sayin.

  4. I hear both pronunciations where I work. It sort of befuddles me since I always used “swag”. “Schwag” has become so commonplace that I hear it more often than “swag”.

    As a side note, the gentleman above uses the word “hocking” meaning to peddle wares. According to what I found on Dictionary.com the word should be “hawking”. “Hocking” refers to pawning or being in debt.

    Believe me, I’m no etymologist. I use words incorrectly all the time. For years I used the word “waffering” in place of “wafting”. It’s not even a word. Yes, I was laughed at. It took me a long time to stop that one.

    I guess my point is that I find these discussions fascinating. I’m bookmarking this website now.

  5. Personally, I use swag. I don’t remember where I heard it first (back in my PR days), but someone referred to it as Stuff We All Get (SWAG) – meaning cheap freebies at an event or concert.

  6. I got this link from a friend and i just want to say that, if you’re sitting here debating the use of schwag and swag, you probably don’t have much schwag. You have schwag, something is swag. G.I.G.I.G.

  7. I think it’s geographical and/or cultural. I learned it as schwag, but I grew up in an area that had a lot of Jewish people. Two of the suburbs, Ladue and U City, are so heavily populated by Jewish people that they are nicknamed LaJew and Jew City. In the latter you can buy Bazooka Joe gum with the comics written in Hebrew at the Jewish Deli. So Yiddish probably influenced it a lot.

    When I moved to a new city and I first heard people referring to free stuff as swag I was confused and when I realized what they were talking about I was like “Oh, you mean schwag?” And they looked at me funny. But the new city has 23 synagogues for 5 million people and the one I grew up in has 26 for for 1.1 million people. So, clearly, there is a much higher concentration of Jewish people in the area I grew up in than there is in the area I moved to.

  8. While schwag may mean low grade marijuana, it refers to free merchandise giveaways.

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