By Anatoly Liberman
I decided to throw a look at a few tw-words while writing my previous post on the origin of dance. In descriptions of grinding and the Harlem Shake, twerk occurs with great regularity. The verb means “to move one’s buttocks in a suggestive way.” It has not yet made its way into OED and perhaps never will (let us hope so), but its origin hardly poses a problem: twerk must be a blend of twist (or twitch) and work (or jerk), a close relative of such verbs as squirm (possibly a blend of dialectal squir “to throw with a jerk” and worm) and twirl (? twist + whirl). When blends are coined “in plain sight” — as happened to brunch, motel, and Eurasia — no one has questions about their descent. Nowadays, blending has become a tiresome custom, and the stodgy products of grafting one word on another are usually as transparent as Texaco or Amtrak and equally inspiring. But no one can prove that twirl is indeed a sum of twist and whirl. Its origin will forever remain “unknown.” Be that as it may, twerk does look like a blend, even though we don’t know who, where, and when launched it into the linguistic space of North America.
Most people sense an element of sound symbolism in words like twerk, even regardless of its rhyming partners jerk, quirk, and shirk. By the way, dictionaries inform us that quirk is also of unknown origin and that jerk is a symbolic formation. Shirk is obscure and, according to some authorities, may have experienced the influence of German Schurke “scoundrel; rogue.” I have moderate trust in the shirk–Schurke connection. Initial j– is such a common expressive substitute for sh– that I wonder whether jerk is a doublet of shirk or vice versa. In English, tw– suggests something fidgety and inconsequential: compare, in addition to the words cited above, tweak, twitter ~ Twitter, tweet, tweedle ~ twiddle ~ twizzle. As with blends, sound symbolism cannot be “proved.” Some speakers hear derogatory or humorous overtones in tw-, while others do not, especially because, for example, tweed and twill are perfectly respectable. It would be too much to expect that some combination of sounds would occur only in semantically related words. I once mentioned the symbolic (perhaps onomatopoeic, frightening) character of English gr- (grim, grind, growl, grueling, and so forth) and had to defend my unoriginal idea against the presence of grace, the gentlest word one can imagine.
Viewed from this perspective, the history of twerp also presents some interest. Two of its rhyming partners (slurp and burp) are even less attractive than those of twerk. (Chirp is not too dignified either; the Latinism stirp is bookish and occurs rarely.) No citations of twerp in OED predate 1923. Two of the citations (both written decades after the word was in use) trace it to a blend of a given and a family name (T.W. Earp). This hypothesis is not improbable (compare namby-pamby “lackadaisical”, based on Ambrose Philips, or dunce, among hundreds of “words from names”) but perhaps a little too good to be true. Perhaps twerp ~ twirp “midget; fool; an obnoxious person” had some currency at Oxford soon after the First World War, and the name T. W. Earp (a real person and an Oxonian) gave rise to a witticism no one could resist. The word gained universal currency as low slang soon after its first attestation. This fact also speaks against the jocular origin of twerp among a coterie of university friends.
Unfortunately, two “serious” etymologies of twerp do not carry conviction. According to one, twerp owes its origin to Danish tvær “running all the way across, diagonal.” This etymology was rejected as soon as it was suggested and for good reason. How could a twentieth-century English slang word (a noun) be a phonetic alteration of a Modern Danish adjective? According to another guess, twerp is a doublet of dwarf. The senses correspond perfectly, but the path from dwarf to twerp cannot be reconstructed. Dwarf, although lacking cognates in the rest of Indo-European, has existed in the Germanic languages forever, as evidenced by Old Engl. dweorg ~ dweorh, Old Icelandic dvergr, Middle High German getwerk, plural; Modern German Zwerg, and other similar forms. Twerp could not be a borrowing; that is, it could not come from an outside source (such a source does not exist; reference to Danish is a bad joke, and, incidentally, the same word exists in Swedish and Norwegian), and no process known to English historical phonetics would have changed dwarf to twerp. A striking coincidence, an ingenious conjecture, but an unacceptable etymology.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the modern verb twerk has a variant twerp: such coinages usually have “inconsequential” variants. However, the most common English words beginning with tw– are of course those akin to the numeral two. In Modern English, only the spelling reminds us that centuries ago two was pronounced with tw-. (Despite my steady aversion to etymological spelling, I would perhaps retain w in two, to preserve it affinity with twelve, twenty, twin, twilight, twine, twice, and twain ~ Twain.) Twist belongs here too. The noun designates a rope made of two threads, a twirl, and refers to various distortions. Hence the verb twist “to intertwine; curve; wring.” Especially characteristic are the Germanic congeners of twist: German Zwist ~ Low German twist “quarrel, discord”; Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish also have tvist (the same meaning). Twig “a small shoot of a tree” seems to be akin to some words for “fork.” If this is true, then a twig once denoted a forked branch, an object with two prongs. How it acquired its modern meaning remains unclear. German Zweig does not conjure up a picture of a tiny branch, though it is smaller than an Ast “bough.” (Did Dickens hint to the vicissitudes in the fate of his hero when he called him Twist? After all, it was he, rather than Mr. Bumble, who invented the name.)
It is anybody’s guess whether the idea of being divided into two parts influenced the semantic development of twirl, twitch, and the rest. Such ties can seldom be reconstructed with confidence. Some tw-words have nothing to do with those being discussed here. Among them are twill and tweed (mentioned above), the other twig (“to understand”) traditionally derived from Irish, and twit (“find fault with”) from Old Engl. æt-witan (read æ like a in Engl. at), which lost its prefix and today looks like a simplex. Compare mend from amend. (James A. H. Murray of OED fame coined the term aphetic for such words.) Tweezers has a rather complicated history. Twee– in it is an aphetic form of French étuis “case,” but I wonder whether the fact that doctors used to carry a pair of ’twees, with twee so conveniently resembling two, played a role in the word’s development. However, a detailed discussion of such nuances would take us too far afield. In this post, we, merry twerkers, have been mainly interested in things not going beyond the understanding of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
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Image credit: Poster depicting Snow White with the prince surrounded by the Seven Dwarfs by Aida McKenzie. New York City W.P.A. Art Project, [between 1936 and 1941]. Public domain via Library of Congress.