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Words and Their Stories: Swan Song

Three-day-old trumpeter swan babies swim together at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio

Three-day-old trumpeter swan babies swim together at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio

Now, the Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.


The white swan – with its long, graceful neck – is among the most beautiful of birds. The swan is mostly silent through its life. It floats quietly on the water, unable to sing sweet songs like most other birds.

In ancient times, however, people believed that the swan was given a special gift of song at the end of its life. They believed a swan sings a most beautiful song just before it dies.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates talked of this two thousand three hundred years ago. Socrates explained that the swan was singing because it was happy. The bird was happy because it was going to serve the Greek God Apollo. Swans were holy to Apollo, the god of poetry and song.

The story of the swan’s last song found a place in the works of other writers, including the early English writers Chaucer and Shakespeare.

And, the expression swan song has long been a part of the English language. At first, swan song meant the last work of a poet, musician or writer. Now, it means the final effort of any person. Someone’s swan song usually is also considered that person’s finest work.

A political expression with a similar meaning is the last hurrah. The expression may be used to describe a politician’s last campaign, his final attempt to win the cheers and votes of the people. The last hurrah also can mean the last acts of a politician, before his term in office ends.

Writer Edwin O’Connor made the expression popular in nineteen fifty-six. He wrote a book about the final years in the political life of a long-time mayor of Boston, Massachusetts. He called his book, The Last Hurrah.

Some language experts say the expression came from a name given to noisy supporters of Andrew Jackson…America’s seventh president. They cheered hurrah so loudly for Andy Jackson during his presidential campaign that they became known as the hurrah boys.

Jackson’s hurrah boys also played a part in the election to choose the next president. Jackson’s choice was his vice president, Martin VanBuren.

A newspaper of the time reported that VanBuren was elected president, in its words: “ the hurrah boys, and those who knew just enough to shout hurrah for Jackson.” So, President Jackson really heard his last hurrahs in the campaign of another candidate, the man who would replace him in the White House.


This VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES was written by Marilyn Christiano. I'm Christopher Cruise.