No tweets or tweeting

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The little bird..Tweets to its mate a tiny loving note (George Meredith, Pastorals, 1851, as cited in OED2)

In my last posting, I reported on Lake Superior State University's 2010 "List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness" (for the year 2009), but reserving tweet (verb or noun) for separate treatment.

Objections to tweet are all over the place. Some people dislike the word because they think it sounds irretrievably silly (with its echo of "When my sugar walks down the street / All the little birdies go tweet, tweet, tweet"). I don't use Twitter myself, but I think that tweet is an inspired coinage, suggesting bright, brief, bursts of expression (like birdsong) and connecting both phonologically and semantically to twitter; I might have suggested chirp, but it lacks those connections.

There are, of course, people who object to Twitter as a name for this service, on the grounds that it is itself silly — infantile and trivializing. Well, the people who created the service in 2006 (Jack Dorsey and his associates; see the Wikipedia page) got to choose the name for it; the rest of us don't get to revise the label.

(Compare Wii, which tons of people despised as the name for a game console when it came out, but the console has flourished despite this griping about the name, which for many people has now become "just the name for" the console, without any strong association to we or any of the senses of wee. People cope easily with homophony, even monstrous amounts of it; context and background knowledge make all the difference. In fact, I think Twitter and tweet have pretty much gone this route, largely unmoored from the avian metaphors that lie behind them; they're "just names" now.)

Then there are people who object to Twitter-the-service (as opposed to Twitter-the name). Their objection seems to be to abbreviation in itself — though it's frankly comical to see people who in other contexts trumpet the virtues of brevity objecting to a form of communication that enforces brevity. (The objectors' error is in taking advice meant, whether reasonably or not, to regulate formal written standard English in certain special contexts to apply to all writng, or even speaking, in the language.)

Which brings me back to the LSSU list, where one commenter on tweet pronounces, "tweeting is ridiculous". You can't tell whether the objection is to the act of tweeting — associated in some people's minds with frivolous young people and vainly self-promoting celebrities, as if these were the only groups to use Twitter, so that using Twitter is viewed contemptuously, since these groups are viewed contemptuously — or to the word (verb or noun) tweet. I can't even tell whether the commenter distinguished the two; words and things are so closely linked, after all.

[Addendum 1/9/10: in a last-minute surge from behind, tweet was selected as the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. Discussion here.]

There are serious defenders of Twitter as a positive good (as opposed to those who merely defend other people's right to conduct their own affairs in their own way, in private or in public, so long as they aren't harming others — taking offense is not the same as being harmed, by the way). See, for example, the lead article in the January 3 NYT Week in Review: "Why Twitter Will Endure", by David Carr.

Carr deprecates the name Twitter and the verb tweet:

In the pantheon of digital nomenclature — brands within a sector of the economy that grew so fast that all the sensible names were quickly taken — it would be hard to come up with a noun more trite [an odd choice of adjective; how is the name Twitter overused or lacking in originality?] than Twitter. It impugns itself, promising something slight and inconsequential, yet another way to make hours disappear and have nothing to show for it. And just in case the noun is not sufficiently indicting, the verb, "to tweet", is even more embarrassing.

But, despite his unhappiness over the vocabulary, Carr goes on to argue for the utility of Twitter, especially when you use various features it provides for managing the flow of tweets.

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