I Am Joe’s Blog:

September 1, 2005 • 11:32 AM

Summer of S((c)h)wag

A couple of weeks ago, I got an unexpected package in the mail: a large tin of delicious chocolate-covered cherries, sent by my publishers as a sort of congratulatory token for having finally completed the very long project of writing Take Control of Now Up-to-Date & Contact. There’s just nothing better than getting goodies in the mail. Actually, many things are better than that, but let’s just say it’s really nice.

I’ve had a real run on surprise goodies recently. Last month, a reader who’s a professional photographer sent me a lovely print from a Moxy Früvous shoot he’d done in the early ’90s. A couple of weeks ago, I received a large gift basket of hot sauces, which I agreed to review and write about as a follow-up to my Interesting Thing of the Day article on Tabasco Sauce and my blog post about Measuring Spiciness. (Stay tuned. The wheels of progress are spinning slowly this summer.) A couple of days ago, I received two CDs from This American Life, courtesy of a reader I’d helped out with some technical questions. Just this morning, the Fisher Space Pen Company offered to send me a prototype of their latest model for testing—with purple ink, natch—as a result of my article on Space Pens. And yet another message in my Inbox this morning was from a reader and regular correspondent who wanted to know if he could buy me a gift subscription to Z Magazine.

Well, this is all quite extraordinary. I’m pleased, touched, grateful—even in the cases where a commercial motive is perhaps lurking behind the scenes. Of course, I would never, ever want someone to feel obligated to send me stuff—or even a thank-you note—for doing them a favor. Favors shouldn’t have to be repaid. But if you choose to send me stuff simply as a way of spreading some good karma around, I am certainly happy to accept. (Well, usually. When I wrote about Castor Oil, a reader offered to send me some castor bean seeds. As I have no outdoor space available where I could plant them, I had to decline.)

Because I’ve spent so much of my life at trade shows and conferences, I’ve become accustomed to using the term “schwag” to denote free merchandise, usually of a promotional nature. (Trade show attendees invariably walk away with all sorts of odd tchotchkes, usually emblazoned with corporate logos.) So by extension I’ve been referring to the items I’ve received recently as “schwag” too. Some cursory research this morning, however, turned up some curious facts. Apparently, there are three distinct spellings: “swag,” “shwag,” and “schwag,” which—though sometimes used interchangeably—have developed rather different primary meanings. As nearly as I’ve been able to determine, they (usually, not always) break down as follows:

  • swag: Typically used for stolen goods. Please do not send me any of this.
  • shwag: Typically used for marijuana of poor quality. Please do not send me any of this either. (And no, I don’t want it even if it’s high quality.)
  • schwag: Typically used for free merchandise (promotional or otherwise). You may send me this if you wish.

But please do me the courtesy of letting me know in advance if I should expect a package from you. As much as I enjoy surprises, I prefer to have a general idea of what I’m opening, times being what they are.