In an earlier Wordsmith edition, we investigated a pair monikers reserved for types of male suitors: the Romeo, or an ardent, persistant lover, and the Lothario who’s a rake, libertine and notorious seducer. Romeo comes of course from the teen-age lover in Shakespeare’s 1595 play Romeo and Juliet. Lothario is the name of a sexual predator who seduces, then abandons the innocent ingenue in a 1703 English play called The Fair Penitent.
Fortunately, not all male suitors are relentless Romeos or dangerous Lotharios. Some are sweetly devoted and kindly disposed; we might call them swains. A bit old-fashioned, the term swain comes from Old Norse, a language spoken in Norway prior to the 9th century or so. In Old Norse, swain meant simply boy, or servant or attendant.
When the term was later adopted by English speakers, it referred to a young man who attended a knight. In his 14th century Canterbury Tales, Geoffry Chaucer wrote, “him serves himself that has no swain.”
By the 15 and 1600s, swain took on the meaning of “farm boy” or “rustic laborer” and the pure, simple life of such rural denizens became a fascination of pastoral poets, who began to use swain in the sense of “gallant, earnest, romantic woodland lover.”