Superman is Swell

By Steve Younis

We're probably all familiar with the scene in "Superman: The Movie" where Lois asks Clark how he felt about his first day working at the Daily Planet.

Lois: "How'd you like your first day on the job?"
Clark: "Frankly the hours were sort of longer than I expected, but on the whole, I mean meeting you and Jimmy and Mr. White - Gosh on the whole I'd say it's been swell."
Lois: "Swell?" (pause) "You know, Clark, there are very few people left in the world who feel comfortable saying that word."
Clark: "What word?"
Lois: "Swell."
Clark: "Really? It always sounded kind of natural."

<A HREF="swell-stm.mov">[View QuickTime Movie]</A>

It was a scene intended to show Lois just how corny and mild mannered Clark was, because by the late 1970s the word "swell" was an outdated slang word that equates to "cool" or "great".

I did some research on the word, and discovered that "swell" was the happenin' slang term of the Roaring Twenties. Having lingered lazily in the English language for over a century, it suddenly burst on the scene around 1920 with attitude written all over it. It defined the rebellious youth culture of that era, a culture fueled by women's rights and anti-Victorian passions that had young people dancing exuberantly.

And "swell" had staying power. Like "cool", it hung on for decades as the number one slang term of approval. But in the mid 1960s "swell" was changed from the rebellious to the cornball. This was because the sixties, like the twenties, witnessed the rise of a rambunctious youth culture that broke with parental traditions bringing with it a new, all-purpose slang term: "cool".

While listening to episodes of the 1940s Superman radio series, I discovered an interesting conversation between Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen, in which Jimmy over uses the word "swell" and Clark Kent admonishes him for it.

The episode aired on March 10, 1941 and was part 3 of the story "Last of the Clipper Ships", an adventure which sees Clark and Jimmy aboard a ship that's supposedly haunted by a ghost known as "The Whistler". Making sure Jimmy is keeping up his school studies, Clark listens as Jimmy reads a character study he's written on the ship's first mate, a man by the name of Teak Barnaby. You can hear the excerpt from this episode below...

Interesting to hear Clark telling someone else not to use the word he later became famous for saying in the movies.

As we know, Clark again uttered the word 'swell' in 2006's "Superman Returns", as an homage to the scene in "Superman: The Movie".

Richard White: "Okay, how about this? Um, we'll stay late. We'll get dinner. I'll help with Superman, and you and Clark can work on the blackout together. Is that alright with you Clark?"
Clark Kent: "Swell".

<A HREF="swell-sr.mov">[View QuickTime Movie]</A>

Superman #76 I'm sure the word "swell" has probably been used elsewhere in Superman's history in other mediums. A quick search through my own files found a reference in the comic book "Superman #76" from May/June 1952 in the story titled "The Mightiest Team in the World".

After capturing the last criminal on Commissioner Gordon's "wanted list", Batman announces that he is going on a much-needed vacation. Dick Grayson heads upstate to visit relatives, and Bruce Wayne leaves for a coastal cruise. Meanwhile, in Metropolis, Superman quickly changes into Clark Kent. He has just delivered the fossil remains of a new dinosaur excavated in the Gobi Desert to the Metropolis Museum, but is late for a date with Lois Lane. During a night of dancing and dining, Lois says, "So, you start your vacation cruise on the Varania tomorrow evening. I'll come down and see you off, Clark!" "That'll be swell, Lois," says a hopeful Clark.

So what's the point of this whole article? There isn't one really, I just found it interesting when I heard the radio series conversation between Clark and Jimmy and thought others might find it, well, kinda swell.

SWELL
Definition: (Slang) Today's word is a positive epithet, popular in the 30s and 40s, meaning, roughly "great, fine."
Usage: Every generation has its slang expression for "great, fine," indeed, "great" is one of them. Originally meaning "large," today it is used most widely to mean "very good." "She is tops," was the expression in the 30s, following "the cat's meow," "the cat's pajamas," and "top drawer" in the 20s. "Swell" replaced "tops" in the 40s and "cool" and "hip" took their turns in the 50s. "Groovy" was the word in the hippy 60s, followed by "far out," in the 70s, "awesome" in the 90s and, now, "phat." Saying that something is "very good" seems not to appeal to anyone under 30.
Suggested Usage: Today's word is dated slang but those of us a bit senescent may still say, "We had a swell time at the swing party last night." It may be used sarcastically, too: "Well, that's just swell! You and your buddies ate all the cookies I had baked for my tea party."
Etymology: In 1724 today's adjective referred to someone swollen with pride, arrogant, but by the beginning of the 19th century, it simply meant "well-dressed, fashionable," following semantic shift of the noun, which by that time meant "a dandy, a distinguished person, a person of high social standing." This remained the meaning of the noun and adjective until the 20th century. In the late 1930's the meaning broadened to a slang expression for "great, fine" e.g. "She's a swell gal," where it has pretty much remained.
Source: YourDictionary.com