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Mid 17th century (in the sense 'mop for cleaning the decks'): back-formation from Middle English swabber (sailor detailed to swab decks), from Middle Dutch zwabber, from a Germanic base meaning 'splash' or 'sway', also found as nautical German Schwabber and Volga German Schwabber, a general term for cleaning tissues.


  • enPR: swŏb, IPA(key): /swɒb/
  • (file)
  • Rhymes: -ɒb


swab (plural swabs)

  1. (medicine) A small piece of soft, absorbent material, such as gauze, used to clean wounds, apply medicine, or take samples of body fluids. Often attached to a stick or wire to aid access.
  2. A sample taken with a swab (piece of absorbent material).
  3. A piece of material used for cleaning or sampling other items like musical instruments or guns.
  4. A mop, especially on a ship.
  5. (slang) A sailor; a swabby.
  6. (slang) A naval officer's epaulet.




swab (third-person singular simple present swabs, present participle swabbing, simple past and past participle swabbed)

  1. (transitive) To use a swab on something, or clean something with a swab.
    • 1913, Joseph C. Lincoln, chapter 6, in Mr. Pratt's Patients:
      He had one hand on the bounce bottle—and he'd never let go of that since he got back to the table—but he had a handkerchief in the other and was swabbing his deadlights with it.
    swab the deck of a ship