Swan Song – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Have you seen the phrase 'swan song' somewhere, and would like to know more about the use and context of the saying? 'Swan song' is a saying that can be used to refer to someone's retirement, or to their last great accomplishment. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of the phrase.


The expression 'swan song' is a common saying in the English language that can be used to refer to someone' s retirement from something, or someone's last great accomplishment.

Someone's 'swan song' is similar to their 'magnum opus' except it is implied that their swan song is the last great thing that they will achieve.

The phrase can also be used to imply that the pursuit of something might be the last thing someone ever does (e.g. their swan song).

'Swan song' is a saying that can be a compliment or an insult.

The phrase can be used in the denial to say that something was not 'someone's swan song' or best, last performance.

Sometimes the phrase can have sarcastic or humorous implications, implying that someone is better off retired or 'done for' at their task or career.

The phrase can be used as a reference when speaking to someone, but it can also be said about someone.

Someone can use the phrase 'swan songs' to mean several events, though the phrase 'swan song' will generally be enough to indicate the meaning of the saying.

A similar phrase to 'swan song' is the term 'curtain call'.

Example Usage

“If you walk through school wearing that dress on the first day, you might as well call that your swan song for the rest of the year and never show your face again.”

“That's going to be your swan song: you don't want to pick a fight with a man who would go ahead and name his boy Sue. He's going to have a mean face, and a scar on his cheek and you just won't win the fight.”

“The performance was his one of his best, which is great because it was also his swan song and he died the very next day.”

“That novel might very well be his swan song. He's old and he might die before he gets the next manuscript ready for his publisher.”


The phrase 'swan song' is said to have originated from the German phrase 'Schwanengesang' which referred to an 1800s collection of music by Franz Schubert.

After performance of the music became more widespread, other artists and writers would pick up on the term 'swan song'.

The phrase was first popularized as a German expression, and then later used as an English one in Sartor Resartus by  Thomas Carlyle in the 1800s.

There are several ways to refer to someone's 'swan song', though the phrase would first refer to someone's last performance only: later meanings would only become apparent throughout the 1800s and 1900s.

The phrase originated from the idea that swans 'sing' or wail before their death.

The phrase has been used in its original form since the beginning of the translated saying, and it was first listed on the website Urban Dictionary in 2005.

Phrases Similar to Swan Song

  • Curtain call

Phrases Opposite to Swan Song

  • Debut

What is the Correct Saying?

  • [that is their/his/her] swan song

Ways People May Say Swan Song Incorrectly

There are several ways in which someone can use the phrase 'swan song' in the wrong way, or misunderstand the meaning of the phrase.

Use of the phrase as 'swan songs' is not typical, but can also render a valid use of the phrase is more than one event is being referred to.

The phrase 'swan's song' is not traditionally used, and would technically be incorrect.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Swan Song

The correct way to use the phrase 'swan song' would be to use it to imply that someone's last performance (or last task) is approaching: the phrase can be used as a serious term, but can also be used with humor or sarcasm to imply that someone is 'done for'.

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