Twit / twat / twerp
Posted: 25 August 2008 01:15 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I have always assumed that twit in the sense “fool” is unrelated to the older meaning “rebuke / tax with an error”, but is simply a euphemistic substitute for twat, analogous to the substitution of beggar for bugger. Am I right? (My Shorter Oxford is too respectable to be any use.) And how does twerp relate to either word?

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Posted: 25 August 2008 02:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I don’t think that twit is in any way related to twat.  The former doesn’t have any of the nasty connotations of the latter.  You may have seen this at etymonline:

The T-word occupies a special niche in literary history, however, thanks to a horrible mistake by Robert Browning, who included it in ‘Pippa Passes’ (1841) without knowing its true meaning. ‘The owls and bats,/Cowls and twats,/Monks and nuns,/In a cloister’s moods.’ Poor Robert! He had been misled into thinking the word meant ‘hat’ by its appearance in ‘Vanity of Vanities,’ a poem of 1660, containing the treacherous lines: ‘They’d talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat,/They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.’ (There is a lesson here about not using words unless one is very sure of their meaning.) [Hugh Rawson, “Wicked Words,” 1989]

Etymonline suggests that it dates to 1659 but doesn’t give any early citations.  Twit, etymonline suggests, is probably influenced by “nitwit” and dates its use in this sense from 1934.

alas the Dictionary of American Slang has “unknown origin” for twerp.  A folk etymology is offered at etymonline.

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Posted: 25 August 2008 03:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The former doesn’t have any of the nasty connotations of the latter. 

“nasty” connotations, indeed.

I well recall the Barry McKenzie strip in Private Eye back in the 60’s / 70’s (written by Barry Humphries, later famous as Dame Edna Everage), in which one of Barry’s more colourful expressions, when faced with the delightful prospect of a few “tubes of frosties” was to describe his throat as being as “dry as a nun’s nasty”.

Whether any of Barry’s expressions reflected actual Aussie slang of the period, or were conjured out of fresh air by the fertile imagination of B. Humphries, I couldn’t possibly say ...

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Posted: 26 August 2008 02:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Here’s a bit of useless lore I’ve been sitting on for 30+ years (perhaps an unfortunate choice of words on my part, but I don’t have one of those things to sit on which will form the subject of my posting):

I once heard a lecture by my department’s very unpleasant expert on onomastics, discussing the distribution of place names ending in -thwaite (e.g., Cowperthwaite) and -horst (e.g., Delmenhorst). The details are lost now, but he related them to the distribution of slash and burn agriculture among Germanic tribes, with -thwaite being a reflex of the word for cut and -horst having burn associations.

The punch line of his lecture, and it was very much that, because he wanted to shock as much as inform, was that there was no modern English reflex of -thwaite, but, no, wait, there was--drum roll--twat! He then acknowledged that we would expect a different descendant of -thwaite today, were we to follow the normal rules of English devlopment, but he suggested that dirty words, since they’re usually not spoken aloud or articulated under normal circumstances, might not follow the usual rules.

I do apologize for being unable to fill in the linguistically significant bits of the argument, but I did only as much historical linguistics as a degree in literature required, and the core of the story has obviously blotted out all the detail from my memory.

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Posted: 26 August 2008 04:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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He then acknowledged that we would expect a different descendant of -thwaite today, were we to follow the normal rules of English development, but he suggested that dirty words, since they’re usually not spoken aloud or articulated under normal circumstances, might not follow the usual rules.

I don’t see why this would be so. If anything, dirty words, since they are less likely to be written, would be more subject to the normal rules of phonological change--or more particularly would be expected to change at a somewhat faster rate than standard words, changes to which are retarded by writing.

It’s an interesting suggestion, but it doesn’t follow the pattern we would expect. Thus it seems unlikely.

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Posted: 26 August 2008 06:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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It’s nonsense from the old school of etymology in which “the consonants count for very little, and the vowels for nothing at all.” The guy just wanted to shock his audience, like my Russian teacher in college who “accidentally” included a shot of himself naked in a sauna in a series of slides he was showing us.

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Posted: 26 August 2008 11:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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SL, in answer to your question:  if these words are related, there’s no proof, according to the OED.  Twerp is of uncertain origin, though the first recorded usage is from a 1925 book called “Soldier and Sailor Words”, which might give a clue as to its origin.  Twit the noun relates to twit the verb, which was originally twite, the aphetic* form of atwite, from OE witan, to blame, reproach.  Twat is of obscure origin, first recorded in 1656 meaning part of a nun’s attire.

*The gradual and unintentional loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word; as in squire for esquire

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Posted: 27 August 2008 05:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Two of the quotes in the OED indicate that twerp may have been formed from the name T.W. Earp (Thomas Wade Earp, b. 1892):

1944 J. R. R. TOLKIEN Let. 6 Oct. (1981) 94 He lived in O[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street (rooming with Walton, the composer, and going about with T. W. Earp, the original twerp).

1957 R. CAMPBELL Portugal 87 T. W. Earp (who gave the English language the word twirp, really twearp, because of the Goering-like wrath he kindled in the hearts of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford, when he was president of the Union, by being the last, most charming, and wittiest of the ‘decadents’).

The dates work if twerp arose among officers. Evidently Earp was well known at Oxford prior to WWI and his name could have wormed its way into soldier slang.

I’m skeptical (it sounds too good to be true), but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. We’d need cites from Oxford student slang c.1910-18 to prove it.

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Posted: 27 August 2008 05:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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astal - 26 August 2008 11:12 PM

Twat is of obscure origin, first recorded in 1656 meaning part of a nun’s attire.

Help, I’m getting confused here. I thought that ‘twat’ for a nun’s headgear was Browning’s mistaken reading of ‘Vanity of Vanities’ (as quoted by Oecolampadius a few posts up from here). What was the poet in VofV suggesting was sent instead of a cardinal’s hat - a nun’s headgear or a nun’s genitalia? In short did Browning completely mistake the word or did was he simply not aware of a second meaning.

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Posted: 27 August 2008 08:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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flynn999 - 27 August 2008 05:33 AM

Help, I’m getting confused here.

So am I, but we are in good company.  Mark Lieberman at Language Log studies this mystery in some depth. According to him the VofV citation can’t be found anywhere as far as he can tell. And how exactly do we know that Browning made a mistake?  Did he ‘fess up somewhere?  Did the word have two meanings like the slang word for the US Army/Air-force overseas cap? Did VofV really refer to genitalia or head attire?  The gynecological parallel to Cardinal’s hat doesn’t work well and how exactly does one “send” a twat anywhere?

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Posted: 27 August 2008 08:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Astal has evidently misread or misunderstood the OED entry. The notion that it was part of a nun’s habit was purely an error of Browning’s, not a second sense of the word.

Possibly due to fastidiousness on the part of the early editors, there is no quotation, only a citation, for the first recorded use, in a translation of Martial.  After a little Googling and following a series of misleadingly labeled links, I finally found a quotation of the relevant passage (the page is mostly in Russian, but Fletcher’s 1656 translation of Martial is shown in English:

In Uxorem, Epig. 44.

Caught with my Boyes, at me my wife the Froe
Scolds, and cryes out she hath an ars-hole too.
How oft hath Juno thus reprov’d loose Jove?
Yet he with Ganimede doth act his love.
Hercules bent his Boy, layd-by his Bow,
Though Megara had hanches too we know.
Phoebus was tortured by the flying Wench,
Yet the Oebalian Lad those flames did quench.
Though much denyed Briseis from him lay
Achilles with Patroclus yet did play.
Give not male names then to such things as thine,
But think thou hast two Twats ô wife of mine.

The gist of which seems to be that buggering your wife just isn’t the same as buggering boys.
I can’t say I get all the references, but clearly this does not refer to some part of a nun’s attire.

[ Edited: 27 August 2008 08:25 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 27 August 2008 08:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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On the Browning error, this article from The Spectator suggests that the OED editors asked him.

Browning, with all his immense learning, was still under the impression that ‘twat’ was the name for an item of nun’s headgear. When the OED, much later in his life, wrote to inquire why he thought that, he kindly sent them a passage from an old poem he’d found -’They’d talked of his having a cardinal’s hat,/ They’d send him as soon an old nun’s twat.’

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Posted: 27 August 2008 08:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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And the full text of “Vanity of Vanities” can be found here.

Although I can’t make much out of it, it appears to have been a pasquinade aimed at Henry Vane the Elder, with swipes at other presumably prominent figures, and was published anonymously, which accounts for the absence of an author in the OED citation.

[ Edited: 27 August 2008 08:36 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 27 August 2008 10:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Leaving aside the Martial translation, the full text of VofV:
They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat,
They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat,
For turning in pan there was ne’re such a Cat,
which no body, &c

doesn’t make entirely plain what the meaning of twat is.  It’s possibly more likely to refer to genitalia than to a hat, but since the cardinal’s headgear was mentioned, Robert Browning and I (I am in exalted company) have both made the same assumption.  I’m not sure what the “turning in pan” and “cat” references imply.  I note that the OED has no explanation of the first sense of twat, just:
1. (See quot. 1727.)
Erroneously used (after quot. 1660) by Browning Pippa Passes IV. ii. 96 under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire
then it gives the first citation which is Fletcher’s translation of Martial:
1656 R. FLETCHER tr. Martial II. xliv. in which twat refers to genitalia.

Why would the OED have omitted the meaning of twat (sense 1)? Simply poor editorial work?

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Posted: 27 August 2008 10:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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The original aim of the OED editors was not to provide any editorial definitions, but to rely on the quotations to provide the sense.  They soon realized that would not be possible as a general rule, but you still find a number of entries like this one, where, instead of writing a definition, they simply refer you to a quotation in which the term is clearly defined. In this case, the 1727 citation we are referred to says “BAILEY vol. II, Twat, pudendum muliebre,” i.e., the genitals of a woman.

That’s what the editors are saying “twat” means. They didn’t omit it, they just thought that was sufficient. Of course, in their day it was probably safe to assume that anyone consulting the OED would have enough Latin to take the meaning.

Edit: “Turn cat in pan” from Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

[ Edited: 27 August 2008 10:48 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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