Phonemes, how do they work?

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Robert Browning never had to apologize for his mistake, and no one asked him to resign. But he made it in a poem, and this was all before Twitter was invented, and he wasn't an American politician. (See "Twat v. Browning", 1/19/2005, for details.) Bob FitzSimmons, Virginia GOP treasurer, wasn't so lucky:

Julian Walker explains ("Update: Va. GOP official apologizes for genital slang 'error'", Pilot Online 2/2014):

In an email, Bob FitzSimmonds said he thought the word he used had the same meaning as "twaddle," which is defined as foolish speech.

"The minute I found out my error, I deleted the post and apologized," he told Pilot on Politics. "I don’t use that kind of language."

"Also to be clear, " he added, "my post was not about Barbara Comstock. It was relating to the sexist stereotypes being used by the woman posting."

Hanover County Del. Chris Peace is asking Virginia GOP leadership to make FitzSimmonds resign his party post and to censure him for his comments, according to a draft of a letter obtained by The Pilot.

Peace's letter calls FitzSimmonds' remarks "disgusting and highly offensive," degrading to women, and "unbecoming of a party official."

"His public comments do not represent my values nor the party I represent," the letter adds.

 The OED's etymology for twattle suggests that people have been fiddling with its consonants and vowels for half a millennium or more, though the deletion of the final -le is apparently new:

The verb and noun (known in 1573 and a1639 respectively) were perhaps altered < tattle n.; the earliest appearance of twattle yet recorded being in the reduplicated twittle-twattle n. (1556), apparently < tittle-tattle n. (evidenced a1529).

The group of words tittle, tittle-tattle, twittle, twattle, twittle-twattle, and twaddle, being primarily colloquial and largely echoic, is probably far from fully represented in written remains, so that dated evidence for the chronological order of these shows many lacunæ; the important data are that tittle, to whisper, is known from 1399, and tattle (in tattler) from c1450, and that tittle-tattle, twittle-twattle, twattle, and twaddle, and their derivatives, appear successively later. No reason for the suggested change of tattle to twattle has been found, but the passage of twattle into twaddle seems certain.

 And maybe no one asked Browning to resign, but the OED did put his mistake into its entry for twat, right up at the top — a slower but more durable rebuke:

Erroneously used (after quot. 1660) by Browning Pippa Passes iv. ii. 96 under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun's attire.



  1. Martin J Ball said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 8:48 am

    What a twit…

  2. Rube said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 8:58 am

    Browning had a pretty sheltered up-bringing, and it was a natural mistake for him to make. But did nobody edit "Pippa Passes"?

  3. Stan said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 8:58 am

    Before reading FitzSimmons's explanation, I assumed he meant twaddle (or a variant), as it made most sense in the context. Given that it wasn't an autocorrect, brainfart or other one-off error, I wonder if he's used twat incongruously before, for example in casual conversation. If he has, no one seems to have set him straight.

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    Twat-tweeting claims another victim.

  5. GH said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    I would imagine that this particular confusion is more likely with the common American pronunciation (twɒt) than with the one Browning used (twæt), which is more typical in Britain, at least in my experience.

  6. John said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    I think we should start calling for the resignations of people who call for resignations over the slightest petty miscommunication.

    It reminds me of the UK scandalette about a UKIP councillor who jokingly called a woman a 'slut' even she mentioned she had an untidy kitchen. The offensive meaning of that word doesn't make the slightest bit of sense in that context, but it didn't stop people baying for blood.

  7. Brett said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 10:22 am

    I remember hearing "twat" used to mean "twaddle" back when I was in high school in Salem, Oregon in the early 1990s. It was actually reasonably common for a a few years. If it was an innovation, I have no idea how localized it was.

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    Twat-tweeting claims another victim.

    Which reminds me of Stephen Colbert forming an irregular past participle on "The Today Show."

  9. Sam Foster said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    Is the title of this post a reference to Insane Clown Posse by any chance?

  10. RP said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

    I don't see sufficiently strong grounds for assuming which pronunciation Browning used. True, the æ pronunciation is the only one I've ever heard here in Britain (and I've moved about the country quite a bit), but the OED gives only one pronunciation – and it's the ɒ one.

  11. Neil K. said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    "Twit-twat" also has some hits in the sense of "mindless chatter" going back to the 17th. C and as a (now obsolete?) vernacular name for the European House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), which is more or less how I think of them when they are mobbing my bird feeder.

  12. Brett said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

    @GH: I've heard both pronunciations with "twaddle," although the one you suggest is certainly more common.

  13. Ted said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    @RP: Browning rhymes twat with bat, which I think requires æ.

  14. BZ said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

    Was it George Carlin who said he likes the word "twat" in part because it has only one meaning? I've always thought it was a dubious claim. I'm pretty sure I've heard people calling other people "twat" in a disparaging context for awhile (even if not with the meaning FitzSimmons seems to have). The Urban Dictionary backs me up, also "Acronym for The War Against Terrorism." That's hilarious (also, as it turns out that latter "The War Against Terrorism" seemed to have its heyday before 9/11 which makes sense because I don't recognize it as a set expression in current use to describe the "global war on terror"). That last meaning is of recent vintage, but I don't know when the insult one came into use. Clearly, though, the word is getting more meanings. Carlin would be disappointed.

  15. richardelguru said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

    "Twat v. Browning"
    I read that earlier post, and I noticed that the OED has 'twat' as US slang for 'buttocks'. This reminded me that 'fanny' seems to have had had a similar displacement whilst crossing the Atlantic.

  16. Brett said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

    @richardelguru: Neither of the OED online's citations for "twat" meaning "buttocks" look convincing to me on their own. The first citation is to another gloss of the term, and the second ("I could tell her what to do with her twat if she's frightened to sit on it.") looks very much like a reference to female genitalia, not to the backside (although it clearly exploits the fact that the two are close together).

    I mentioned above that "twat" meaning "twaddle" was used at my high school. In fact, the most memorable conversation that used the "twaddle" meaning also made use of the "pudenda" meaning and the same conflation of buttocks with genitals as in the OED's quote. A student was complaining about the way an overweight female teacher was (here I paraphrase) "sitting her twat on a stool, legs apart to show it off to the whole class," and "talking twat" all the while.

  17. David Morris said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

    I look forward to the sequel to Pippa Passes, namely Papa Pisses.

  18. CuConnacht said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

    The poem from which Browning learned the word rhymes it with "hat". If I recall correctly, "a cardinal's hat" is contrasted with "an old nun's twat", which is why he thought it was a nun's headgear. . The couplet is also at the OED entry.

  19. Rube said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    And presumably Browning had never actually heard the word pronounced, he got it solely from his reading.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

    The "sit on it" OED cite Brett references reminds me of the running double-entendre in this blues standard and I suspect you can probably find versions of the "if I can't sell it, I'm gonna sit on it" trope in blues lyrics back into the 1920's. So I'm comfortable with the notion that they have just misunderstood the AmEng data. Does the OED have a Browning-like inability to parse double-entendres?

  21. Mark Stephenson said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

    Alexei Sayle (British "alternative" comedian) used this word in a government road safety video, saying that if someone cuts you off, instead of doing anything in return, just satisfy yourself with realizing that other drivers he encounters will also be thinking, "What a ….!" It's no more offensive than "git" or "jerk" in the UK.

    But when I quoted this in an American social network site, I was told that the word was offensive, so I deleted my posting.

  22. RP said,

    February 28, 2014 @ 3:53 am

    @Ted, thanks for pointing that out.

    @Mark Stephenson, I know many people who would agree with you, but most British dictionaries mark it as "vulgar" or "coarse", and David Cameron still had to apologise after he used the word. Also, I vaguely recall that either the BBFC or Ofcom did some research which found that while a significant portion of the population found it inoffensive, there were many others who were still insistent that it was a swearword and not everyone thought it was a mild one, either.

    Plus, as recently as the early 1990s, my dad gave my then-teenage brother quite a talking-to for using the word. My brother insisted it wasn't offensive, but Dad was having none of it and claimed that if my brother knew what the word "really" meant then he wouldn't use it. This was in the UK, too, we're British and my dad was in his 40s at the time.

  23. Adrian said,

    February 28, 2014 @ 4:18 am

    Although people do use the words sod, bugger, c*nt, twat, spaz, etc. figuratively, this is one area where etymology *does* matter, and sensible people avoid their use in anything other than the most familiar contexts.

  24. RP said,

    February 28, 2014 @ 4:20 am

    The Cameron story I mentioned is at

    The broadcaster Christian O'Connell is quoted: "[Cameron] said 'That's not a swear word.' I think he must be posh, where a lot of them don't think twat is a swear word. His press secretary went 'It is'."

    Ofcom research ( , 2010) page 92 suggests regional and age-based variation (with over-55s more liekly to take offence): "some participants said that ‘twat’ was as offensive as the word ‘cunt’ in some areas, whereas some participants interpreted it as a strong term for ‘idiot’".

  25. GH said,

    February 28, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

    @Ted, @CuConnacht: Thanks, the bat/hat rhymes were indeed my basis for assuming Browning used (if only in writing) the /twæt/ version.

    As for its offensiveness, the British comedian Stephen Merchant tells a story that may perhaps illustrate the ambivalence. When he first learned the word, he thought it was just a variant of "twit" (a mild insult), perhaps influenced by "prat", and he started using it regularly around his parents. His father, apparently also unfamiliar with the word, also picked it up. Once Stephen became aware of its actual meaning, he was mortified by his dad's continued oblivious use.

    (It should probably be mentioned that he told the story on the radio, using the actual word, although with some hemming and hawing.)

  26. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 2:59 am

    Perhaps Fitzsimmonds was twatted? Or concussed because he had been twatted?

    1. To be hit on the head by another head or occasionally a fist.
    2. To be very, very drunk,
    1. "…this chav tried to steal my burger so I twatted him one…"
    2. "I was so twatted last night, I still can't see who I'm sleeping with…"


  27. Easterly said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

    The mother of a close friend used to use "twat" thinking it meant "buttocks", frequently in public. None of us had the balls to tell her otherwise. She was from Louisiana for what that's worth.

  28. Jenny Tsu said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 4:44 am

    In my opinion, all of the above clearly refers to the utterances of Tweetle Beetles.

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