Dot Wordsworth

Why do we swipe left?


Beau Brummell, denouncing the fashion for a vegetable diet, was asked if he had never tried it himself: ‘Oh yes, I remember I once ate a pea.’ His remark sounded funnier then, because the normal way of talking about the little green spheres was as a collective, pease, as in pease pudding. Brummell was not the first to talk of one pea. Robert Boyle, the natural philosopher, wrote in 1666 of a bud the size of a pea. Alternatively a single example was called a pease.

I mention peas because their harvesting was done in the 18th century with two implements: a pix (shaped like a pickaxe, I suppose) to pull the pea vine towards the harvester, so that with the right hand it might be cut with a swipe.

It’s this swipe that has ended up as a word for the flicking motion of the finger across the touchscreen of a mobile phone. It wasn’t just peas at first: a swipe was also the name for a row of corn as it falls when mown. This was also called a swath, now overworked as a dead metaphor, referring to an unspecified area.

To swipe was something that cricketers might do, and in 1825 John Jamieson in his Scottish Dictionary explicitly likened the action to that of ‘a scythe in cutting down grass’. It looks as though swipe was originally a variant of sweep. The extra sense of ‘stealing’ developed in America in the 19th century.

In any case, the meaning of ‘a swing of the arm’ was available when a word was needed in the 1980s to describe passing a credit card or identity card through a reader. The Oxford English Dictionary has not quite caught up with the act of swiping on a touchscreen. Mobiles with touchscreens have only been around for 16 years. People who use so-called dating sites have grown used to swiping to the right the picture of a favoured candidate on an app, or to the left a rejected one, like sheep and goats at the last judgment.

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