Though nifty, swell & spiffy sound like words from the last century or so, it appears they've been around for a while.
Swell in its noun form came into English in the 1200s. Though it appears to have Germanic roots, no direct line can be found. Swell’s origin is a mystery. Initially, swell meant a morbid swelling. Swell showed up just in time to get lots of use during the Black Death. By the 1600s, swell also referred to a rise in the sea, and by the 1780s it picked up the meaning, an elegant, wealthy person, due to perceived “puffed up, pompous behavior” of the elegant & wealthy. A brief fifty years later the noun slid sideways into the world of adjectives & began to mean fashionably dressed. In the late 1700s, that “puffed up” flavor of swell began applying itself to writing or speaking, & came to mean an inflated style of language. By the time the century turned, swell shifted again to mean good or excellent. In 1930s America it took another sideways slide into the world of interjections, becoming understandable all by itself in a sentence as a “stand alone expression of satisfaction.”
Nifty made its way into English in 1868, with two posited, yet questionable origins. Some etymologists believe nifty came from the theater crowd, but have little evidence to support this. Most etymologists also doubt the origin story offered by Bret Harte when asked about nifty’s appearance in his writing. He claimed nifty was an abbreviation of magnificat. Still, nobody knows.
In 1853 spiffy appeared in English, also with no known origin, though it appeared about the same time as another word with no apparent source, spiff, a well-dressed gentleman. By the 1870s, the term spiffing became popular, meaning excellent. To confuse matters, there’s no apparent relationship to the noun spiff, a term used in the draper’s trade, meaning the percentage owed a salesman who sells outdated or undesirable stock. The same is said of the verb to spiflicate, which means to confound, & may just be a word we need to bring back to popular usage.
Followers, please leave a comment. In this modern age are we suffering from the confusion that anything swelled up is a good thing? On another note, why do you suppose spiffy, swell & nifty all have questionable beginnings? More importantly, are spiffy, swell & nifty still alive & thriving, or do they only spiflicate modern English listeners?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, English Language & Usage, & Etymonline.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.