January 31, 2023

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Twerk, twerp, and other tw-words

6 min read

By Anatoly Liberman

I decided to toss a appear at a couple of tw-text though composing my past publish on the origin of dance. In descriptions of grinding and the Harlem Shake, twerk takes place with fantastic regularity. The verb means “to go one’s buttocks in a suggestive way.” It has not but designed its way into OED and perhaps hardly ever will (let us hope so), but its origin hardly poses a challenge: twerk ought to be a mix of twist (or twitch) and function (or jerk), a near relative of these verbs as squirm (potentially a blend of dialectal squir “to throw with a jerk” and worm) and twirl (? twist + whirl). When blends are coined “in basic sight” — as transpired to brunch, motel, and Eurasia — no just one has concerns about their descent. Presently, blending has turn out to be a tiresome custom, and the stodgy items of grafting just one term on another are normally as transparent as Texaco or Amtrak and equally inspiring. But no a single can demonstrate that twirl is indeed a sum of twist and whirl. Its origin will for good stay “unknown.” Be that as it may possibly, twerk does glance like a blend, even however we really do not know who, exactly where, and when launched it into the linguistic place of North The us.

Most men and women sense an factor of audio symbolism in text like twerk, even irrespective of its rhyming partners jerk, quirk, and shirk. By the way, dictionaries tell us that quirk is also of unidentified origin and that jerk is a symbolic formation. Shirk is obscure and, according to some authorities, may perhaps have seasoned the influence of German Schurke “scoundrel rogue.” I have reasonable have confidence in in the shirkSchurke link. Initial j– is such a typical expressive substitute for sh– that I ponder regardless of whether jerk is a doublet of shirk or vice versa. In English, tw– indicates a little something fidgety and inconsequential: assess, in addition to the terms cited higher than, tweak, twitter ~ Twitter, tweet, tweedle ~ twiddle ~ twizzle. As with blends, sound symbolism are not able to be “proved.” Some speakers listen to derogatory or humorous overtones in tw-, although other folks do not, specifically mainly because, for example, tweed and twill are perfectly respectable. It would be way too significantly to anticipate that some mix of sounds would take place only in semantically associated terms. I as soon as mentioned the symbolic (perhaps onomatopoeic, terrifying) character of English gr- (grim, grind, growl, grueling, and so forth) and experienced to defend my unoriginal idea from the presence of grace, the gentlest word a person can think about.

Snow White and the 7 Twerps.

Seen from this point of view, the historical past of twerp also offers some desire. Two of its rhyming partners (slurp and burp) are even significantly less interesting than individuals of twerk. (Chirp is not way too dignified possibly the Latinism stirp is bookish and happens seldom.) No citations of twerp in OED predate 1923. Two of the citations (the two created a long time right after the term was in use) trace it to a blend of a specified and a household title (T.W. Earp). This speculation is not unbelievable (compare namby-pamby “lackadaisical”, primarily based on Ambrose Philips, or dunce, among hundreds of “words from names”) but possibly a minimal way too superior to be accurate. Perhaps twerp ~ twirp “midget fool an obnoxious person” experienced some currency at Oxford before long soon after the Very first Planet War, and the title T. W. Earp (a serious person and an Oxonian) gave rise to a witticism no one particular could resist. The word acquired universal currency as reduced slang before long immediately after its to start with attestation. This reality also speaks from the jocular origin of twerp among the a coterie of university pals.

Sadly, two “serious” etymologies of twerp do not carry conviction. In accordance to 1, twerp owes its origin to Danish tvær “running all the way across, diagonal.” This etymology was turned down as before long as it was proposed and for good cause. How could a twentieth-century English slang word (a noun) be a phonetic alteration of a Fashionable Danish adjective? According to a different guess, twerp is a doublet of dwarf. The senses correspond correctly, but the route from dwarf to twerp are not able to be reconstructed. Dwarf, despite the fact that lacking cognates in the rest of Indo-European, has existed in the Germanic languages endlessly, as evidenced by Aged Engl. dweorg ~ dweorh, Old Icelandic dvergr, Middle Superior German getwerk, plural Fashionable German Zwerg, and other very similar sorts. Twerp could not be a borrowing that is, it could not come from an outdoors supply (these kinds of a source does not exist reference to Danish is a terrible joke, and, incidentally, the very same word exists in Swedish and Norwegian), and no approach known to English historical phonetics would have improved dwarf to twerp. A placing coincidence, an ingenious conjecture, but an unacceptable etymology.

It should not come as a surprise that the modern day verb twerk has a variant twerp: this kind of coinages typically have “inconsequential” variants. Having said that, the most frequent English terms commencing with tw– are of system these akin to the numeral two. In Modern-day English, only the spelling reminds us that centuries back two was pronounced with tw-. (In spite of my steady aversion to etymological spelling, I would potentially retain w in two, to protect it affinity with twelve, twenty, twin, twilight, twine, 2 times, and twain ~ Twain.) Twist belongs listed here way too. The noun designates a rope designed of two threads, a twirl, and refers to various distortions. For this reason the verb twist “to intertwine curve wring.” In particular attribute are the Germanic congeners of twist: German Zwist ~ Very low German twist “quarrel, discord” Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish also have tvist (the exact same meaning). Twig “a tiny shoot of a tree” would seem to be akin to some phrases for “fork.” If this is genuine, then a twig at the time denoted a forked department, an object with two prongs. How it obtained its present day which means stays unclear. German Zweig does not conjure up a photo of a very small branch, though it is more compact than an Ast “bough.” (Did Dickens hint to the vicissitudes in the destiny of his hero when he referred to as him Twist? Just after all, it was he, fairly than Mr. Bumble, who invented the title.)

It is anybody’s guess whether the concept of staying divided into two elements affected the semantic growth of twirl, twitch, and the rest. Such ties can rarely be reconstructed with self confidence. Some tw-terms have very little to do with people currently being discussed in this article. Between them are twill and tweed (talked about higher than), the other twig (“to understand”) traditionally derived from Irish, and twit (“find fault with”) from Aged Engl. æt-witan (examine æ like a in Engl. at), which lost its prefix and these days seems like a simplex. Evaluate mend from amend. (James A. H. Murray of OED fame coined the expression aphetic for these types of text.) Tweezers has a relatively sophisticated background. Twee– in it is an aphetic sort of French étuis “case,” but I marvel whether the fact that medical doctors employed to carry a pair of ’twees, with twee so conveniently resembling two, performed a function in the word’s growth. Nevertheless, a specific dialogue of this sort of nuances would choose us also far afield. In this article, we, merry twerkers, have been predominantly interested in points not likely outside of the knowing of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as nicely as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on term origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears in this article, just about every Wednesday. Send your etymology query to him treatment of blog [email protected] he’ll do his ideal to stay clear of responding with “origin unknown.”

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Picture credit score: Poster depicting Snow White with the prince surrounded by the Seven Dwarfs by Aida McKenzie. New York Town W.P.A. Art Job, [between 1936 and 1941]. General public area by way of Library of Congress.