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Twhatever next?
– the lexicon of Twitter

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New Word of the Month
Twhatever next? – the lexicon of Twitter
by Kerry Maxwell

Why bother twalking in person? Why not spend your twime tweeting? – twit’s twonnes more fun! Sorry, I’ll stop, before this gets irritating, but anyone who, like me, spends time observing new additions to our vocabulary, can’t fail to have noticed the fun people are currently having with that consonant cluster ‘tw’. Excluding the word two and its derivatives, words beginning ‘tw’ only occupy a couple of pages out of more than 1700 in the current edition of the Macmillan English Dictionary, but contemporary usage is beginning to suggest that the run of ‘tw’ entries may begin to grow a little... I’m talking of course about word formation in the world of Twitter.

Twitter is a social networking service owned by American company Twitter Inc. Launched in 2006, it now boasts in excess of 190 million users per month, and centres on the concept of microblogging providing short snippets of text which invite responses from other users, often in real time. These pieces of text, usually known as tweets, can be a maximum of 140 characters long, and could be questions, responses, descriptions, pieces of information, or any other kind of conversational marker.

Use of the word twitter as a name for this service has turned out to be a masterstroke. As well as being an appropriate description for the functionality of the service (the verb twitter means something like chatter or ‘give short bursts of inconsequential speech’) it also has the connection with birds (birds which twitter make chirping, high-pitched noises). The ‘bird’ association has delivered a winning, cute little bird logo, and also metaphoric extension to related terms such as tweet, which have become unofficial trademarks of the service. No-one could have anticipated that this would be such a successful formula of linguistic association – an instantly memorable name which has kick-started a whole new world of ‘tw’-based word play.


With Twitter messaging services available via the web, text messages, RSS feeds or e-mail, Twitter users have a range of options to expose any new ‘Twitterisms’ and propagate their use. This has led to such ‘tw’-based coinages infiltrating into the general public consciousness, whether users of social networks or not, a fact reflected in the choice of tweet, both in its verb and noun sense, as 2009’s ‘Word of the Year’ by the American Dialect Society. The use of these ‘tw’- words has sparked some debate, however (check out this June 2010 piece in the New York Times), though even dictionary makers have been forced to acknowledge their popularity (the words tweet, twitter and tweetup, explained below, have already found their way into the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary The Macmillan Dictionary currently records tweet and tweeter, with further Twitter-based additions likely).

Of course not all coinages in the Twitter domain begin with ‘tw’-. Perhaps one of the most interesting developments is a new spin on use of the verb follow, which refers to the action of subscribing to another person’s messages on Twitter. An individual who subscribes to another person’s messages is therefore said to follow them, or be their follower, and the verbs unfollow/defollow and refollow are corresponding derivations which refer respectively to the actions of stopping subscribing to someone’s messages, or starting to subscribe again. Another term that has found its way into the Macmillan Dictionary is the countable noun hashtag, which refers to a word or phrase preceded by a hash sign (#), used to identify Twitter messages on a particular topic.

However, it’s those ‘tw’- words that really seem to have captured people’s imagination, with new inventions popping up all the time. What follows are the results of my own investigation into Twitter-speak, having set myself the target of finding as many discrete examples of ‘tw’- creations as possible:


twitter, Twitter verb [I/T]
This is where it all begins – the verb describing the action of using the short messaging service Twitter. It’s got a variety of grammatical distributions, used intransitively, as in I was twittering on the way to work, transitively, as in I twittered this topic the other night and with prepositional phrases, as in I twittered for advice or she was twittering about the issue. A related activity noun twittering also exists.

twitterer noun [C]
a user of the Twitter short messaging service.

tweet verb [I/T], noun [C]
as a verb, this is basically a very commonly-used synonym of twitter, describing the action of using the service. It has a similar syntactic distribution, and following the pattern of verbs like a phone, text etc, the direct object can be a person as well as a thing, as in Who do you tweet? or I tweeted her regularly. In the same way as for twitter, there’s a corresponding activity noun tweeting. A related verb retweet describes the action of copying a message and then posting it again.

Tweet also regularly appears as a countable noun referring to the short message itself, as exemplified in a February 2010 headline from the Telegraph: Twitter users send 50 million tweets per day. A commonly-used verb collocate is post, as in He posted a tweet announcing his engagement.


tweeter noun [C]
a user of the Twitter short messaging service.

tweetup noun [C]
a meeting of two or more people who know each other through the Twitter short messaging service. This can be an impromptu meeting, or an organised event publicised on Twitter. Among the more interesting examples of the latter is a series of tweetups hosted by NASA, culminating in an event held during the shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral in November 2009.

tweetometer noun [C]
a device (computer code) which counts the number of tweets in a particular time frame or in relation to a particular topic. During the 2010 parliamentary election in the UK, a tweetometer was used to judge the swing in political preferences among the community of social network users.

twitpic noun [C]
a photograph or other image sent via the Twitter short messaging service.


twittizen noun [C]
a user of the Twitter short messaging service (blend of twitter and citizen). At the intersection of journalism and social media, there’s also some evidence for twittizen journalism (based on citizen journalism) – the gathering and reporting of news by Twitter users.

tweep noun [C]
a user of the Twitter short messaging service. This occurs most commonly in the plural form tweeps (a blend of tweet and peeps, a slang term for ‘people’).

tweeple noun [plural]
a collective noun referring to users of the Twitter short messaging service (blend of tweet and people).

twitterati noun [plural]
a collective noun referring to the Twitter ‘elite’ – those people whose tweets attract a large number of followers (readers). Famous examples include the British actor Stephen Fry. The word takes inspiration from the glitterati – rich, famous and attractive people.


twitterholic noun [C]
a person addicted to using Twitter. The typical twitterholic tweets at least 20 times a day, and follows at least 200 people. There’s also some evidence for a lexical variant twaddict.

twitterverse noun [C]
the Twitter service and its network of users (a blend of Twitter and universe). A lexical variant is twittersphere (=Twitter + atmosphere, probably based on the popularly used expression blogosphere, referring to blog text and the community of blog users).

twitterhea noun [U]
the condition of feeling compelled to tweet constantly about everything you do, even if this is pointless and insignificant (probably based on the expression have verbal diarrhea/diarrhoea, meaning ‘to talk too much’).

twelete verb [T]
to delete a message previously posted on Twitter.


tweme noun [C]
a tweet’s particular theme or topic, often identified by giving special labels to keywords within the tweet. This relates to the recent new take on the word meme – a concept or idea that spreads very quickly via the Internet.

tweath noun [C]
a false report of someone’s death, particularly a celebrity, circulated on Twitter. Notable examples include American actor Jeff Goldblum, who, though perfectly alive and well, was rumoured dead by the Twitter community in June 2010, when he was said to have fallen to his death on the set of a new movie.

Well, that’s as much of the ‘tw-’ story as I’ve discovered so far, but I’m sure there are likely to be other examples out there, so, any suggestions welcome – why not put them into the Macmillan Open Dictionary. Lexical prescriptivists might discard these words as ephemeral, a passing phase, only used by ‘insiders’, rather than by the masses – all of which may be true. But as long as this social networking platform exists and continues to be popular, it’s looking like ‘twexicography’ won’t disappear any time soon.


For weekly in-depth articles about new or current words, read Kerry's BuzzWord articles on the Macmillan Dictionary site.