Twitter spawns twitterverse of new words
- 5 September 2011
- From the section Magazine
Why has Twitter spawned a whole twitterverse of new words from tweet cred to twitterrhoea, asks Alan Connor.
When Miss Universe contestant Vasuki Sunkavalli was discovered tweeting a journalist's political commentary as if the thoughts were her own, it wasn't long before she was accused of twagiarism.
A cocktail of twitter and plagiarism, it's pretty clear what "twagiarism" means and it's by no means the first such new word - that is, the first old word to find "tw-" thwacked on to its front end.
Where are these neologisms coming from and why do some people find them irritating? And how useful is "twagiarism" as a term for this very particular alleged misdemeanour?
The "victim" in this story, Wall Street Journal columnist Sadanand Dhume, says it's useful to make the distinction.
"Twagiarism certainly sounds less serious than plagiarism, as it should," he says. "It's a reminder that the twitterverse is much smaller than the universe and that we should keep a sense of humour about it."
For the record Sunkavalli says she had merely failed to grasp one aspect of twittiquette, namely retweeting, which is quoting another user while giving them credit.
With its 140-character limit, Twitter encourages abbreviation. It's also an informal forum, one where people are more comfortable inventing terms than they would be in other forms of the written word.
"Had I said 'tweets plagiarised on Twitter', there wouldn't have been space to share the borrowed tweet itself," says Dhume.
But as the blossoming of words like "twisticuffs" and "tweeple" suggests, there may also be something about "tw". It's not universally popular though - the book Twitter for Dummies notes "many avid users actually find [tw- words] rather annoying".
Twitter's working name was Stat.us and it seems likely that if it had stuck there would be fewer words coined by adding "st-" or "sta-" at the beginning. They wouldn't sound as whimsical or effervescent.
Flick through a dictionary and you'll notice something about the English language's "tw" words. There are a few related to "two": twin, twelfth, twilight and so on. And there's a tiny minority of what you might call fairly sensible words: tweezers, twig and of course tweed.
The rest tend to be of a type that's more playful or, depending on taste, more grating. "Tw-" words can be about inanity or ignorance: twit, twerp, twonk or twaddle.
They can suggest lightness, smallness or delicacy: tweak, twiddle or twinkle. Or they can flag up that you're being self-consciously old-fashioned: 'twas and 'twere, 'twixt and 'tween. All very twee.
This clumping of words with a similar sense doesn't only happen with "tw-".
Former UK children's laureate and host of BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth Michael Rosen says: "You might call this a sensory cluster. You also find it with 'sl-' and 'sw-' words."
English has all manner of "sw-" words that suggest a curved, fast motion, such as swerve, swat, swipe, swing or indeed swoosh.
Try and imitate any of these movements and you'll hear they can quite literally have a "sw" sound, suggesting the words may be onomatopoeic.
Likewise, "sl-" is often slimy - slobber, slush, sleaze or slur, with an effect used by the poet Seamus Heaney in his description of frogs and their spawn.
If a new word has this "sound-alike" quality, or if it sounds like other words which do, it probably has a better chance of catching on.
"It might be because these sounds have a prehistoric origin that imitates feelings and movements," explains Rosen.
"Or it could be that people invent words according to fashion and habit. But when a new word hits, it can be because it's freighted with this great cargo of associations and we say 'Yes! We like it!'"
And then there's "tweet". Twitter founder Jack Dorsey tells the story that Twitch was another possible name, suggested by the little vibration a phone performs when a message arrives. However the word also brings to mind nervous tics and barely-suppressed fury.
"So we looked in the dictionary for words around it and we came across the word 'twitter' and it was just perfect," he says. "The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information', and 'chirps from birds'. And that's exactly what the product was."
That decision has created what Rosen calls "the next sensory cloud" and people have "run with it and multiplied it".
Also lurking in that cloud are other relatively recent coinages. The 20th Century has given us snacks including Twiglets, Twinkies and Twirls as well as the twigloo - a kind of bivouac "set up in a tree during an environmental protest".
And you can mark out your youth in "tw-" words, from your tweenage years to living as what Time magazine in 2005 called a twixter, stuck betwixt adolescence and adulthood.
With a few exceptions, "tw" words are frivolous, even cute. It's possible that the same cluster that makes it fun for some people to come up with "twords" is what rankles others: again, the tweeness.
So where will it all end?
US-based language blogger Stephen Dodson concludes: "I expect that, as repellent as these bits of twaddle sound to us now, if they catch on and keep being used we'll all get used to them and barely twitch when we run into them."