Did Chaucer Coin “Twitter”?

Um, no. Or at least, probably not.

But that’s what The Atlantic Wire claimed yesterday in another conflating of coinage with earliest recorded usage. The Atlantic’s blog post was inspired by this tweet from the editors of the OED which says “Chaucer provides our earliest ex. of twitter, verb.”

In his Boece, a translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, written sometime in the late 1370s or early 1380s (the OED says c. 1374, but that’s probably a few years too early; the Middle English Dictionary puts it at c. 1380), Chaucer writes:

And the janglynge brid [...] twytereth desyrynge the wode with hir swete voys. (3.m2.21–31)

(The chattering bird [...] twitters, longing for the woods with its sweet voice.)

Chaucer wasn’t the only writer around that time to be using twitter. John Trevisa in his translation of Higden’s Polychronicon writes:

Þe osul twytereþ mery songes [...] Þe ny3tyngale in his note Twytereþ [...] Wiþ full swete song. (1.237)

(The blackbird twitters merry songs [...] The nightingale in his notes twitters [...] With full sweet song.)

So, the editors of the OED are correct in saying that Chaucer is the earliest known writer to use the the verb to twitter, but others were using it shortly after he was, and it seems likely that Chaucer was using a trendy, new verb that that was floating about London at the time, and not the coiner as The Atlantic Wire inferred from the evidence. It’s a small, but important distinction.

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Sources: The Oxford English Dictionary Online; The Middle English Dictionary; and The Riverside Chaucer, Larry Benson, ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

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