Easily Confused Words: Swell vs. Swill

Swell and swill are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Swell has multiple meanings.

  • As a verb, it means to grow in size or intensity. For example, a wound swells with inflammation and pus. Figuratively, it can mean more abstract things getting bigger, like a parent whose heart swells with pride as they watch their child graduate from high school.
  • As a noun, it describes waves on the ocean.
  • As an adjective, it means something fashionable, elegant, great, or outstanding.This word is associated with the 1940s-50s.  Like many trendy words of past and present, it can be used sarcastically: the speaker says it, but the lack of enthusiasm in their tone implies he/she means the opposite of what’s being said.

Swill is a noun. It means a low quality alcoholic beverage.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Steve thought the punch served at his neighbors party was pure swill, so he stuck with the boxed wine he brought. Then he strolled around the house to see how the move was coming along.

Thankfully, bad taste wasn’t reflected in the new furnishings at all. The design and decor of this midcentury ranch house was classic, with modern nuances. He might even call it “swell,” to use a term from when the house was first built. 

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