Swinging the lead
When we refer to someone as swinging the lead we mean that they are malingering or shirking their duties.
In the days before ships were fitted with SONAR and when nautical charts were not quite as accurate as they might be, one of the constant dangers was running aground. It was of paramount importance to know the depths of the waters you were entering. In the 18th and 19th centuries the method commonly deployed was to drop a line weighted with a lead weight over the side to measure the water’s depth.
Admiral W.H.Smyth’s Sailor’s Wordbook of 1867 is an invaluable source of information about the practice. A sounding lead, he defined, was an instrument for discovering the depth of the water, being a tapered cylinder of 7 or 14 or 28 lbs in weight and being attached, by means of a strop (a flexible piece of leather) to a lead line which is marked at certain distances to ascertain the fathoms. A deep sea lead, he wrote, was normally heavier, ranging from 28 to 56 lbs in weight, and attached to a much longer line.
The leads were often hollowed out and filled with tallow wax. This enabled the sailors to bring up samples from the sea floor, particularly useful information for the helmsman of the ship. The lines to which the leads were attached were knotted at six feet intervals, the length of a fathom.
What is relevant to our enquiry as to the origin of our phrase is the good Admiral’s definition of the process of getting the weighted lines into the sea. He defined the process as heaving the lead and there is no evidence of swinging the lead being in the common vernacular until the First World war when it was attributed as an Army phrase. The magazine, To-day, in 1917, reported, “it is evident that he had swung the lead (using Army phrase) until he got his discharge”.
What are we to make of all this? One theory posits that the operation of heaving the lead was one of the lighter duties that could be allocated to a seaman and that he may have been tempted to make good his fortune by prolonging the time spent in casting the lead weights into the sea and hauling them back. But this seems unlikely. Firstly, the effort of manipulating a lead weight of up to 56 lbs in weight and throwing it as far as you could and then hauling it back in was not inconsiderable. Secondly, the results of the endeavour were so crucial to the welfare of the ship that it was inconceivable that it would be performed unsupervised. Thirdly, the dictionary definition of the verb heave is to lift or haul something heavy with great effort whereas swing does not have that connotation of vigorous movement.
There is a similar phrase, swing the leg, which was in common usage in both the army and the navy. It is supposed that this is a reference to the requirement that personnel in the infirmaries put one leg out of their bunk to demonstrate that they were still alive. It is possible that the two phrases were conflated to produce swinging the lead. And you could imagine that someone who was capable of moving their leg out of a bunk would be regarded by some of their harder-hearted colleagues as making the most of their indisposition.
We cannot be sure. What it does go to show, though, is that what seems an obvious derivation of a phrase – the heaving of lead weights into the sea to determine the water’s depth – may not actually be the right answer.