Is an orderly queue a swarm?
Is an orderly queue a swarm?

The brouhaha over the Prime Minister’s use of the phrase “swarm of people” referring to migrants has, understandably, been intense. (A fuller record of the context in which he said it is at the end of the blog). Notably, Harriet Harman stated that “he should remember he is talking about people and not insects”, while Jeremy Corbyn described his language as “inflammatory, incendiary and unbecoming of a prime minister.”

Standing back a little from this highly charged debate over a deplorable situation for all concerned (above all, please remember, for the people trying to reach the UK, but also for the people of Calais, lorry drivers, holiday makers, etc., etc.), I said to myself: hang on, isn’t Harriet Harman’s comment rather literalistic? It is, surely, perfectly possible to refer to groups of people as swarms. (Jump to the Conclusion, if you want to skip the lexicography bit.)

What can dictionaries tell us?

For what it’s worth, dictionaries certainly include this meaning.

  • Collins (3rd meaning): “a throng or mass, esp when moving or in turmoil”;
  • Merrian-Webster does not separate the human swarm from others, but has as meaning 2 a: “a large number of animate or inanimate things massed together and usually in motion: throng swarms of sightseers a swarm of locusts a swarm of meteors”;
  • Oxford online (meaning 1.2) has: “(a swarm/swarms of) A large number of people or things: a swarm of journalists“.

It is interesting that none of those three comments on the connotations of the word, as lexicographers often do, with labels such as “offensive” or “derogatory”.

In fact, only the OED does so: “A very large or dense body or collection; a crowd, throng, multitude. (Often contemptuous.)”

But the first meaning all of them give can be summarized either as “a very large number of insects moving together” (Merriam-Webster) or (Oxford online) “A large number of honeybees that leave a hive en masse with a newly fertilized queen in order to establish a new colony”.

(The bee meaning goes back at least to 725, and the word is echoed in Modern German, Dutch, Swedish, etc., as well as being probably related to Sanskrit.) swarm of bees

A slumbering metaphor?

The application to people can be considered a metaphor, which raises the question of whether that metaphor is alive, dormant, or dead. The current debate suggests that it was dormant, but has been rudely reawakened.


I think it’s fair to say that the connotations (semantic features) of the word are necessarily:

    • a large group;
    • a compact group;
    • a group in energetic motion;
    • (perhaps optionally) confused motion; and
    •  the group is undesirable.

Referring to people, is it inevitably pejorative?

Let’s look briefly at its history. That use, according to the OED, dates back to an early fifteenth-century poem (the Kingis Quair, the King’s Book) by James 1 King_James_I_of_Scotlandof Scotland (himself an enforced “migrant” in an English prison) in one of the stanzas describing people on Fortune’s wheel:

And ever I sawe a new swarm abound
That thoght to clymbe upward upon the quhele (wheel)
In stede of thame that myght no langer rele. (spin)

While that particular use seems neutral – he is just referring to masses of people – more than half the subsequent OED citations have a negative tinge (many in theological contexts): swarm(s) of Antichrist, bishops, false ministers, sects.

What can Google and corpus tell us?

If you search in Google Ngrams (a ginormous database of books published between 1800 and 2012) for the string swarm of followed by a wildcard, the string swarm of these is the seventh most common, after different insects. My survey (15 citations, with some duplication) of what follows “these” for 1800-1810, shows that all three cases (which include Gibbon and Goldsmith) mentioning people are negative, e.g. “England is already, unfortunately for native talent, cursed with a swarm of these exotic ‘artists’.” This tends to confirm what was said above about the OED citations: the negative association of the word when applied to groups of people is of long standing.

Furthermore, most of the insects referred to in Ngrams as a swarm are a nuisance, or undesirable; locusts, flies, ants, gnats (but Ngrams only gives you the first ten collocations.)

One question that I asked myself was whether you could refer to “desirable” or beautiful insects as a swarm and the Oxford English Corpus suggests that you can: dragonflies, fireflies, grasshoppers and even butterflies.

However, the first human group in that same list is paparazzi – almost universally regarded as a pest.

It all depends on the context

The OEC data shows that swarm of (within a window of three to the right) collocates with groups of humans: people; angry youth/bloggers/media; reporters.

Swarm of people

Of the 32 examples of swarm of people from the OEC about half seem to be neutral, as far as one can gather from the limited context available: for example (from a news site): “Whistles and drums will echo through Lancaster as a swarm of people parade through the streets in a bid to save a nursery.”

That contrasts with contexts such as “Suddenly Bradson was centre of a swarm of people , all staring at him , pressing close , addressing him in a language he could not comprehend“, where the swarm is clearly perceived as threatening.

Looking at the plural swarms of people in Google Ngrams suggests a similar contrast, even among the earliest citations it throws up. On the one hand, there is Addison’s neutral “… trade and merchandise, that had filled the Thames with such crowds of ships, and covered the shore with such swarms of people” (The Freeholder, Vol. 4, No. 47).

On the other, there is Malthus’s “... in the midst of that mighty hive which had sent out such swarms of people, as to keep the Roman world in perpetual dread, …” (An Essay on the Principle of Population, Book 1, ch. 6, 1798).

Other swarms

While “swarm of people” can arguably merely highlight the numbers involved, the other kinds of swarm mentioned — angry youth, etc. — are all unfavourable.

Another collocation is with who, where 12 of the 30 collocations seem neutral, but the remainder are negative, ranging from mere Marxists to “a swarm of those bloodsuckers who are always on the watch for public calamities” and “a swarm of crusading bureaucrats who relentlessly raid our private lives“.

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The overriding conclusion must be that when referring to people, swarm is highly likely to be negative (or to have a negative “semantic prosody” as some linguists have termed it, though the concept has been challenged).

As confirmation of that, if one looks at the synonyms dictionaries give for swarm, several are as unfavourable as it, or more so (horde, gang, mob, etc.).

The combination swarm of people when referring to migrants is particularly unfortunate, since the latter is in any case a highly charged and politicized word and concept. (As the Washington Post has commented, to be described as a migrant immediately puts you on the bottom rung of a hierarchy of status and desirability. Aren’t so-called “economic migrants” as much refugees as political refugees?)

What would have been wrong with the neutral “large groups”?

Image courtesy of Karl Sharro, tweeting as @KarlreMarks

On an uncharitable reading, by using the phrase “swarm of people”, Mr Cameron was either giving unwitting vent to his inner xenophobe (though that seems unlikely for such a fluent, soundbite politician) and/or playing to the gallery, by reinforcing the narrative of Britain as an island of prosperity besieged by trillions of invading would-be scroungers.

(The fact that one of these desperate people was recently killed in the attempt, and that others repeatedly suffer severe hand injuries is ignored.

And it seems to me that people who have the courage to make the incredibly dangerous and draining journey from wherever they set out are displaying a degree of courage and determination that is admirable.

Here is a sober analysis of the numbers involved, showing how few Britain has accepted compared to other EU countries).

On the other hand, his using the word could be justified by the neutral use of swarm referring to people as previously detailed. That fits in with Downing Street’s justification that “The point he was making is that there are tens of thousands of people moving across Africa and trying to get to Europe.”

From that perspective, it would not be unreasonable to argue that he was merely using a standard, colourful collocation of English, which his critics and the thought police have pounced on in order to make political capital.

Against that, it can be argued that because the larger verbal contexts in which swarm of tends to occur are so often negative, people are attuned to that negativity, and will therefore tinge supposedly neutral contexts with that negativity. Furthermore, since the larger, social context is the whole British debate about migrants, which is generally negative, it is hard to disagree with critics of what Cameron said.

Mr Cameron’s words

(From the Guardian, 30 July 2015) Speaking to ITV News in Vietnam, Cameron vowed to do more to protect Britain’s borders. He said: “We have to deal with the problem at source and that is stopping so many people from travelling across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. That means trying to stabilise the countries from which they come, it also means breaking the link between travelling and getting the right to stay in Europe.

This is very testing, I accept that, because you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live. But we need to protect our borders by working hand in glove with our neighbours, the French, and that is exactly what we are doing.”


  1. Good article, as ever, and very timely. There has to be a more humane and rational way of dealing with this. Let’s hope so. The numbers involved are only going to go up.


  2. Great article! But it looks like in the direct quote, Cameron didn’t say “swarm of MIGRANTS;” he only said “swarm of PEOPLE.”

    Anywho, reminds me of objections in the US, to the common use of the word “massacre” to describe attacks/ killing of the early American settlers by the Indians/ Native Americans. Commonly in writings from the 1800’s, the (invading)settlers were portrayed as DEFENDING themselves, whereas the indigenous people were portrayed as bloodthirsty, & commonly labeled as savages,

    But it’s a matter of perspective, I’m sure, and history is written by the victors. If I have something I want to keep, and a bunch of you guys seem to be threatening by ability to do so, then you’re swarming, and that’s all there is to it.


  3. Che bell’articolo. L’analisi linguistica è sempre chiara ed esaustiva; quella sociologica lo è ancora di più. In Italia ormai il termine che definisce gli immigrati è Extracomunitario, ovviamente con accezione negativa, visto che lo stesso termine non viene usato per altri extracomunitari come, per esempio, gli statunitensi wasp immigrati in Italia! La saluto cordialmente!


    1. Lo è, mi creda, ed è un segno di degrado morale per una generazione come la mia (nata negli anni 60) che ha vissuto un’altra Italia e ha condiviso un’altra Storia.


  4. Like all animals, including insects, humans can swarm. People are, however, herd animals, like bison or deer, not collectives, like bees or wasps, so swarming is not a natural behavior…we tend to stampede, or browse and graze. Rioters, black Friday shoppers, and soccer fans stampede because they are focused on movement without a shared end purpose. To swarm requires a shared purpose and something of a shared mentality, a trait we can only mimic, but which is integral to a bee’s nature. When murder squads swarm within an urban environment, they move with a shared consensus that suppresses individual inhibitions; small paramilitary units sometimes seem to move and attack invaders like wasps defending territory. Foreigners swarming? I don’t think so. More accurate terms might be invasion, influx, even deluge or bloom. Can we use swarm as an accurate term for any normal group of people? Yes. Tourists…they’re everywhere, they get into everything, and they’re annoying. Brighton in the summer, San Diego during Comic-Con, or Tijuana anytime.


  5. Hi Jeremy, thanks for the very exhaustive discussion.
    We have reached the point where you have to be so careful about what you say and how it might be taken that it would be better to just keep your mouth shut.


  6. Sorry, I forgot to say that I love the picture of what I guess is your garden. Is the stone dog there to scare intruders (like asylum seekers) away ? 🙂


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