Rude word

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Michael Quinion reports in his latest World Wide Words (#661, October 17):

TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE TWINK  It's amazing what you can learn from e-mail error messages. The issue last week was blocked by one site in the UK because it had a rude word in the message body. Do you recall reading any rude words? I don't remember writing any. It transpired that the offending "word" was in the title of a nursery rhyme I listed: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The filtering system spotted the first five letters of the first word and pounced. I had to look it up: TWINK is gay slang (I quote Wikipedia) for "a young or young-looking gay man (usually white and in his late teens or early twenties) with a slender build, little or no body hair, and no facial hair."

From the Wikipedia entry, it's hard to see why anyone should treat twink as a rude word. In current gay slang, it labels one of a number of recognized "types" of gay men: twink, bear, clone, prep(py), leatherman, queen, jock, etc. Each is associated with a stereotype involving physical appearance, attitudes, and presentation of self, through dress, bearing, gesture, speech, and so on; there is a weak, but only a weak, association with preferences for sex acts and roles. The set of types is not a taxonomy of gay men; a great many gay men don't fall clearly within one of the types.

Within the world of gay men, the labels are taken seriously as social identifiers, but as is common with labels associated with social stereotypes, they're often used in a mildly mocking (even self-mocking) fashion.

But things are more complex than that.

Believe it or not, the OED (additions series 1993) has an entry for uses of twink, and twinkie as well, with reference to gay men. The etymology of twink is uncertain, though the OED hesitantly suggests a relationship to twink 'twinkling', and it notes a popular association of twinkie, and so twink as well, with the snack cake Twinkie (the OED doesn't go so far as to record jocular references to twink(ie)s as being, or getting, filled with cream).

Uses of twink(ie) with reference to gay men are fairly recent. The OED's first cite for twink is from 1963, but it's in an American Speech article reporting on word uses, so that the word surely has an earlier history. The first cite for twinkie is from 1980, again in a report on usage, this time in Maledicta.

The earliest uses are (mildly or strongly) derogatory, and seem to come mostly from straight people. The American Speech article glosses twink as 'an effeminate young man, a sissy', and gives it in the list of alternatives

pansy-ass, petunia, punk, swish, weenie

Eventually, we get to Armistead Maupin, a gay man, using twink non-derogatorily, as a label for a gay male "type". From More Tales of the City (1980:85):

I found this gorgeous twink carpenter in the Mission.

The OED glosses twinkie as 'a male homosexual, an effeminate young man; also, a child or youth regarded as an object of homosexual desire'. The cites are all at least mildly derogatory in tone, though by 1988 we get an American Speech article in which twinkie and clone refer to gay male "types".

NOAD2 lacks twink, and, like the OED, treats twinkie as a general term for 'a gay or effeminate man', but adds a more specific (perhaps too specific) gloss describing a "type":

a young gay male who is meticulous about his dress, hair, weight, and other aspects of his personal appearance

What's new in NOAD2 is a usage label, "informal offensive"; the OED merely labels twink and twinkie as "U.S. slang".

These dictionaries don't distinguish out-group and in-group use, but that's clearly significant. There's also variation in in-group uses; as is usually the case with social labels (and categories), attitudes towards the words (and the referents) differ from person to person. Here's a site (with descriptions of gay slang) that makes both of these points:

Twinkie or its more common abbreviation twink, are used as generic derogatory terms to describe a weak or effeminate male. In gay slang, twink is a term that describes a young or young-looking male, usually of slender build, only slightly muscular, with little to no body hair (often referred to as a "swimmer's build"). Often they are described as bleach-blond. To many gay men, the term is pejorative and implies shallowness and stupidity. There are also allusions to the Twinkie pastry, due to the analogy of the creme filling to a young gay male. Twinks are typically contrasted with bears. (link)

Note that twink(ie) picks up aspects of the "dumb blonde" stereotype.

None of this, of course, would justify filtering out e-mail that has the word twinkle in it, on the grounds that twink is a "rude word". Even if twink counts as taboo vocabulary in current English — a very dubious claim, it seems to me — the automated searching that picks out twinkle as a problematic word is inexcusable (another instance of the baleful Scunthorpe effect).


  1. Thomas Westgard said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    I think it's fairly simple: people want information about sex, but are afraid of being judged for the things that catch their interest. This is especially true of topics involving gay sex. The consequence of this is that people are far less likely to report possible computer security breaches when they are carried in through a website dealing with a taboo topic.

    Malicious hackers know this and use it as a way to get into security systems. Maybe you *shouldn't* use the company computer to look for twinks, but sometimes people do. Who wants to tell the company computer geeks that you were looking for a gay lover when the screen blacked out in a weird way? So hackers use this fear to get the computer user to assist in hiding their attacks.

    The technology is new, but the strategy is old. It worked well in the 1950's for the Soviets, as one can read in the memoirs of Anthony Blunt:

    In short, homophobia is bad for national security.

  2. Erik said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    I suspect that "twink" is in the block list not because it's an inherently offensive word, but because it's a word used heavily online to sell pornography, similarly to words like "lolita", "BBW", or "milf" (granted "milf" has an offensive etymology to begin with). These are the sort of words that it's dangerous to search for even if you're not interested in pornography. If the ratio of use to sell porn to other uses is relatively low (either with the same meaning (e.g. "gay") or with a different meaning (e.g. "mature" or "bear")), then I suspect it will likely get removed from various blocked lists. If the ratio swings the other way, then if it's a common word, the list creators are forced to find a way to deal with it. If it's less common in general, then the issue probably arises so rarely that they just don't bother. I feel like this falls into the latter category. Heck, even here it wouldn't have come up if there hadn't been the added Scunthorpe effect.

  3. pjharvey said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    'Twink' is also used in on-line computer games, normally massively multiplayer role-playing games, where it refers to supplying a lower-level character with resources beyond the characters normal means, normally gained from a higher-level character with greater access to the game's resources.

    For example, if a newly created character of mine is sent 1,000 gold, either by another character of mine or that of a friend, that would be twinking her, and she would be a twink.

    I have no idea if this form of 'twink' is related to the one referenced in the above post.

  4. John Cowan said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    I'm sorry that I can't give an exact citation, but I remember one of Maupin's characters from that series saying "Calling people twinks is just the gay version of male chauvinist piggery" (or words to that effect). I thought about it, agreed, and dropped the word forthwith.

  5. Troy S. said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    It's also gamer slang, usually in role-playing games for a low-level character outfitted with weapons and armor that make him far more powerful than would be possible under normal circumstances. Not sure how either's origin might be related (I assume it somehow stems from the snack food) but they are both pejorative.

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    'twink' is used to sell pornography, and refers to under-age adolescents ('chicken' is another gay slang word for them, at least in the phrase 'chicken fancier').

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    Incidentally if you're using html then the way to cut out the automatic censorship is like this cunt

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    Woops I forgot that the html tags are read by the server. What you do is open and close an html tag containing nothing in the middle of the offending string.

  9. Sili said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    I don't know/ can't guess what "clone" is supposed to refer to.

    On the other hand I'm surprised that someone can be unfamiliar with "twink". But then again, recently I encountered someone online who had to look up "squee!" and didn't know of "yaoi".

    So I'm obviously very prone to the frequency illusion – or the subgenre the commonness illusion.

  10. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    To Sili re clone: macho gay; think Marlboro Man. Now largely a figure of the past. See:

    Levine, Martin. 1998. Gay macho: The life and death of the homosexual clone. NY: NYU P.

    and the OED (draft revision Sept. 2009) entry: 'a homosexual man who adopts a particular type of stereotypically macho appearance and style of dress'.

  11. Chris said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    Twink is also a brand/generic term for correction fluid here in New Zealand.

  12. Bobbie said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

    I learned the word twink in reference to young gay men in 1960 at Provincetown Massachusetts. (I got quite an education that summer!) Someone who chased twinks or chickens was known as a chicken hawk.
    What concerns me more is the automatic prissiness of the on-line censor / filter. I'm sure there are other words that those filters reject. I cannot think of any right now and am sure that other readers will contribute examples.

  13. Sili said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    Ah. That makes sense, yes. Thank you.

    (Sorta like the "butch" to the "twink"'s "femme"?)

  14. Janice Huth Byer said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    Being raised on the "wrong side of the tracks" by only one qualifying parent, a lowly born one, at that, I've always secretly considered it a compliment to be lumped in with WASPs, despite some spoil-sports telling me, in no uncertain terms, they mean as a pejorative. What do THEIR kind know?

  15. Gary said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    I'm sure that you are aware of the commonly assumed etymology of twink/twinkie from the creamfilled cake that is immediately attractive and satisfying but that is engineered to make the consumer hungry again very soon.

    Is it known to be an urban legend etymology? it always made sense to me.

  16. George Amis said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

    Twenty years ago, a gay friend of mine referred to me as a chicken hawk because I was dating a much younger woman. I understood perfectly what he meant, but if he had called her a twink, I wouldn't have had a clue. Perhaps twink is the more recent coinage.

  17. GAC said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    Several people beat me to mentioning the MMO gaming sense. What I'm curious of is if this has any relationship with the "gay" meaning, if such a relationship could be traced at all.

  18. Graeme said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 6:30 am

    When work employed the Eudora Pro email programme about a decade ago, I was surprised to have an email held up with 3 chillies. I'd used 'fag' in the Australian colloquial sense of a cigarette; the prudish programme knew only its homophobic use.

  19. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    Maybe I should have hammered this home more forcefully in the original posting, but people differ considerably in the referents they associate with socially significant vocabulary (that is, in the categories they associate with this vocabulary) and in their attitudes towards those referents and the associated words. In discussions of these matters, people tend to take the category they are most familiar with as the central one, and to take the attitudes they are most familiar with as the dominant ones. But in fact there's quite a lot of variation in these things, and this variation often depends on context.

    My discussion of twink(ie) makes it clear that a number of categories are at play here, at least: gay male; effeminate male; a particular "type" of gay male (picked out in several different though related ways, depending on which features of the type are foregrounded); a "chicken", that is, a young (especially underage) male viewed as an object of homosexual desire (I'm putting aside gaming vocabulary and names of correction fluid). There's no deciding which category is "the correct" one — it's different categories for different people in different contexts.

    And there are attitudinal differences. In particular, some uses of the words as labeling a type of gay male are neutral in attitude, while others are associated with judgments of superficiality and stupidity (similar to "dumb blonde" judgments, which is probably why, in John Cowan's report, Maupin's character — not necessarily Maupin himself, by the way — saw using twink as similar to male chauvinist piggery).

    Attitudinal differences over socially significant vocabulary can be extreme: consider black and other racial terms; homosexual vs. gay vs. queer; and so on. WASP can be neutral, derogatory, or positive (see Janice Huth Byer's comment). I have even heard college professor used contemptuously. Sometimes this is a matter of attitudes towards the categories in question, sometimes a matter of attitudes towards particular words, sometimes a bit of each.

  20. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    Automated searches come in two varieties, substring searches (which will pick up twinkle, Scunthorpe, and the like) and whole-word searches (which will not pick these up). In my opinion, substring searches as a filtering mechanism are evil. But whole-word searches can do plenty of mischief, as in Graeme's problems with fag 'cigarette' and problems I have heard about over people with the first name Dick; I'm sure there are lots of other examples.

  21. Aviatrix said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    pjharvey and Troy S.: twelve years ago in multiplayer online roleplaying games a twink was a lower-level character who took extreme, attention-getting actions that his character shouldn't have been able to do. So someone who stole a battleship from his empire, singlehandedly flew it across the galaxy and attacked an opposing empire would be a twink, and he would be "twinking out."

    I suppose this isn't that different from the current definition, as outfitting a low level character with high-level weapons might put them in the situation where they can do such a thing.

  22. Robert Coren said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    Re clone: I had always supposed that it was a contraction of Castro clone, since the type was presumed to be particularly prevalent in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco; but I suppose the latter could just as easily have been a subtype of the former.

  23. Robert Coren said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Arnold says: In my opinion, substring searches as a filtering mechanism are evil. I would go further, and say that content-based filtering intended to protect users from seeing "offensive" words is evil, whether the method used is also stupid or not.

  24. neminem said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

    Yup, I also came to mention the gaming sense. I understand that it came from the snack food, in that twinks have a squishy (low-level) center surrounded by a less squishy (because they have awesome gear) exterior.

    The first time I heard that it was also a somewhat pejorative term for a certain class of outwardly gay person… I was sort of surprised. I'd been using it with its gamer-y meaning for ages.

  25. Stephen Jones said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    In the 80s a 'clone' was stocky, short, always had a moustache, had short cropped hair, often receding, and would wear a leather jacket, tight fitting jeans and a tight fitting T-shirt. They were referred to as clones because they all looked the same. I rather suspect the decline in visibility of the type has everything to do with aging. Beer bellies, bags under the eyes, baldness or white hair, and wrinkles somehow don't seem so enticingly cloneable.

  26. Stephen Jones said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    I'd used 'fag' in the Australian colloquial sense of a cigarette; the prudish programme knew only its homophobic use.

    In the eighties the British Foreign Office actually issued a travel warning to those going on holiday in the US not to go into a shop and ask for 'a packet of fags' as they were used to doing in the UK.

  27. Stephen Jones said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    But then again, recently I encountered someone online who had to look up "squee!" and didn't know of "yaoi".

    I've just had to look up both of them.

  28. Stephen Jones said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for 'twinkie' meaning an effeminate homosexual and dates it to the late 20th century.

    All American references I can find in the corpora refer to some kind of revolting cream cake, which luckily it seems has not yet managed to cross the Atlantic.

  29. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    If the gamer twink is at all related to gay twink, perhaps the connection is the concept of sugar daddies? I mean, an older man who financially supports a younger one in exchange for sex. In my (limited) experience, twinks are the stereotypical money-receiving parties, thus being in a similar situation to the MMO twink. (Though, really, Aviatrix’s etymology is more likely).

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    I had never previously wondered about the stage name of the '60's et seq. English rock musician Twink (nee John Charles Alder). Wikipedia claims it came from the hair care product described in the separate article called "Twink (home perm)," which I suppose may have been popular with the more bouffant of the U.K's male hippie population. Except that one suspects that an additional sexual subtext might not have been unwelcome, if only because Twink went on to found the Pink Fairies with a bunch of other musicians who had previously played in the Deviants. (It is at least sometimes said that the gay-subtext implications of "Pink Fairies" were intentional, although probably just for epater la bourgoisie rather than as an actual proclamation of identity or orientation.) But it's not clear from the sources referenced above whether the gay slang meaning of "twink" had already made it from the U.S. demimonde to the U.K. demimonde during the '60's, or if it was a later import.

  31. Kapitano said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 5:21 am

    A british gay term from the 80s and 90s, equivalent to "twink" is "chicken" – hence "chickenhawk" for a gay man who likes chickens.

    Another, for men too heavyset to be bears but not hairy enough, is "bearcub".

    So have any search engines blocked these zoological terms? I don't know, but it wouldn't surprised me if some censorious moron who know's far too much about gay slang for a god-fearing family man to try to make them.

    I'm waiting for someone to try blocking the letters A and O, which stand for Anal and Oral in sex personals.

  32. Fetcher said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    I quickly scanned through the comments, but is there any possibility that this slang is at all related to Twinkerbell? Peter Pan commonly refers to her as "Twink" and the description of the slight, blonde, effeminate man fits into the Twinkerbell mold, perhaps, with further connotations included. Just a thought that struck me as I read this post.

  33. April K said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    Re: Fetcher

    The name of Peter Pan's companion is Tinkerbell, Tink for short.

    I have no idea how common it is, but friends and I have used the word Twinkie to refer to pretty women without much sense. Like the snack cake they have a pleasing exterior and nothing but fluff on the inside.

  34. J Greely said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    I had to turn off the profanity filter in the game Champions Online just to find out why AI-controlled characters were occasionally swearing at me. It turns out that their filter ignores space characters, so "put a stop to" came out "$#((! stop to".


  35. GAC said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 3:50 am

    @J Greely It takes care of foreign words? I am waiting to hear about a Three Kingdoms game that continually censors "Cao Cao" (sorry, Chinese joke).

  36. stripey_cat said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

    The oldest form of Twink as gamer-slang I'd encountered well pre-dates online roleplaying (heck, it predates the internet and is probably older than me – I've seen it in old magazines and such from at least the early 80s), and so is much before any mechanism for one player-character being illicitly assisted by another. The association I learned was with a character (and by implication a player) who is obsessed with amassing technology, particularly weapons, but is much less effective at actually winning than a Munchkin (um, the sort of player who will do absolutely anything to "win", even in nominally cooperative games). I'm not seeing an obvious connection, other than that Twinkish gaming behaviour is most often seen in male teenagers – possibly it implies emotional immaturity and missing the point in both contexts?

  37. Twittiquette – or Twemes among Tweeple who Tweetup for Twirting and/or Twisticuffs « said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    […] Sadly there was no room for the etymology of "twonk" – coined/popularised, according to the Telegraph, by John Sullivan to give Del Boy a non-sweary swear word; nor for gay slang "twink" ("with a slender build, little or no body hair, and no facial hair"). […]

  38. Isa Kocher said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    in 1965, in Center City Philadelphia a Twinkie was first of all a Hostess Twinkie. "chicken" was an underage youth. a "chicken hawk" was a man who predated on underage boys. A lot of bars were lax about checking ID. Just about any fake was acceptable. When I first heard the word "Twinkie" it specifically referenced post pubescent boys, roughly 12-15.

    Later years with the legalization of pornography and the prosecution of sexual predation, public meanings changed because it literally became a serious crime to print or publish or photograph pictures of Twinks literally children. Prior to Stonewall, any M on M discussion was as illegal as child molestation. And, young men at that age weren't considered molested if the adult took a passive role. After Stonewall, that changed.

    in one sense, it was the adult which was considered to have been demeaned and denigrated by having submitted to a child. PC now considers that view a mortal sin. Young men from working class backgrounds in some communities used gay men opportunistically. This did in effect absolve predators of guilt.

    The word "Twinkie" however was specifically a term for pubescent boys. in 1965 in Center City in Philadelphia.

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