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Why Is a 'Swan Song' So Sad?


A swan swims in a flooded street of the island of Vaux, west of Paris, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.
Why Is a 'Swan Song' So Sad?
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Now, the VOA Learning English program, Words and Their Stories. On this program, we explain American English expressions a little more in depth.

Like many languages, English has many expressions that come from the world of animals.

Today, we hear about a beautiful bird that gives us a rather sad expression. Christopher Jones Cruise brings us that story.

A swan and a nutria have an argument at a small lake near the airport of Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.
A swan and a nutria have an argument at a small lake near the airport of Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.

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.

An archeologist cleans up the fresco ''Leda e il cigno'' (Leda and the swan) discovered last Friday in the Regio V archeological area in Pompeii, near Naples, Italy, Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. (Cesare Abbate/ANSA via AP)
An archeologist cleans up the fresco ''Leda e il cigno'' (Leda and the swan) discovered last Friday in the Regio V archeological area in Pompeii, near Naples, Italy, Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. (Cesare Abbate/ANSA via AP)

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates talked of this more than 2,300 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.

Dancers of the State Opera Ballet perform during a dress rehearsal of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake at the State Opera in Vienna March 13, 2014.
Dancers of the State Opera Ballet perform during a dress rehearsal of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake at the State Opera in Vienna March 13, 2014.

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 1956. 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 Van Buren.

A newspaper of the time reported that Van Buren was elected president, in its words, “by 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.

Olaf Niess catches a swan as he transports swans to their winter enclosure on Alster river in Hamburg, Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.
Olaf Niess catches a swan as he transports swans to their winter enclosure on Alster river in Hamburg, Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.

And that brings us to the end of this Words and Their Stories. Join us again next week as we explore more common expressions in American English!

Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.

This is not a, this is not a
Swan, swan song
This is not a, this is not a
Swan, swan song
We just gotta, we just gotta hold on tonight
This is not a, this is not a swan song, swan song
Swan dive
Yeah, it's a new life

Marilyn Christiano wrote this story for VOA Learning English. This story was originally published in January of 2013. The song at the end is Dua Lipa singing "Swan Song."

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