Twitter Terms and Literature

TwitterlogoThe word ‘tweet’ – meaning to post a message or item of information on Twitter – has this month (June 2013) been added to the Oxford English Dictionary or OED. In honour of this occasion, we thought we’d offer some interesting facts about terms associated with Twitter, and the stories surrounding their earlier uses. Many of them have a literary connection.

The word ‘tweet’ – as a verb – is first attested in 1851. It may have been in use earlier than this, but the OED cites 1851 as the earliest known date of the verb’s use. The word features in a poem by George Meredith, novelist and poet, author of Victorian sonnet sequence Modern Love. (Meredith was also the author of the poem ‘The Lark Ascending’, which would later inspire Ralph Vaughan Williams to compose his celebrated piece of music.)

The poem, one of Meredith’s ‘Pastorals’, contains the lines: ‘While the little bird upon the leafless branches / Tweets to its mate a tiny loving note.’ Oddly fitting, since many modern-day tweets posted in praise of people, events, or things, might be described as ‘tiny loving notes’ sent out into the world by those ‘little birds’, Twitter users. (Equally fittingly, when you first sign up for Twitter your ‘avatar’ or profile picture is an egg, while the ‘home’ page of the site is represented by a birdhouse.)

Meredith is credited by the OED with introducing over 130 other words into the language, including enchantingness, huffily, lexiconise (appropriately, meaning to reduce something to a dictionary), overstressed, and slave-drive, as well as the rather good hyphenated adjectival phrase ‘alter-egoistic’. (Somewhat apt for the writer who gave us a novel called The Egoist.)

Meanwhile, T. S. Eliot gave us ‘twittering’ in his 1935 poem ‘Burnt Norton’, one of his Four Quartets: ‘Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.’ But there are many other terms which have become peculiarly associated with the social networking site, which have had a long history prior to the advent of Twitter in 2006. Take ‘social network’ itself, which is first recorded in the Autobiography of US temperance campaigner J. B. Gough, published in 1845: ‘I again became involved in a dissipated social network.’ (While we’re at it, ‘world wide web’ is first found in 1965 in a book about Charles Darwin, where the authors of the book described Darwin’s work on evolution as being the product of ‘a world-wide web of scientific communication’.)

The verb ‘trend’ – regularly used on Twitter as a verb, in relation to those topics most talked about on the site – goes back over a thousand years with various meanings, used as both a transitive and intransitive verb (the difference being: transitive verbs take a direct object, e.g. to eat something, whereas intransitive verbs don’t take a direct object, e.g. to eat). Most of these senses of the word ‘trend’ relate to turning, whether turning or ‘trending’ wool or making a complete circuit of something. The earliest use of this latter sense is attested from 1580 and comes from John Dee, astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I (and the man who used as his cipher ‘007’, a fact which James Bond creator Ian Fleming would later find useful): ‘You shall trend about the very Northerne and most Easterly point of all Asia.’ ‘Trending’, as a present participle, meanwhile, is attested from 1856.

The word ‘unfollowed’, meaning to have stopped tracking someone’s tweets on Twitter, is first recorded in a more general sense in the early sixteenth century and features in the Prologue to John Ford’s 1634 play Perkin Warbeck, where he uses it about literary fashions (or trends) which have fallen from popularity (specifically, the performing of history plays).

‘Direct message’, predictably, has had a life before Twitter’s ‘DMs’, and is found in the 1850 novel Petticoat Government by Frances Trollope (mother of fellow novelist Anthony Trollope), where mention (there’s another Twitter term) is made of ‘a direct message from Mrs Dorking herself’. However, the phrase is almost certainly older than this.

To ‘favorite’ (or favourite) as a verb has not yet found its way into the OED, though the word has been used as a verb for a long time: an 1817 edition of a periodical, The Trifler, states, ‘Private theatricals have from time immemorial been a favourited amusement.’

There may be others we have missed off, so would be glad to hear from you if there are any other Twitter (or, more generally, internet) terms which have had a life before Twitter/the internet, especially if they can be found in literary texts. You can leave the fruits of your research in the comments below, or, alternatively (and appropriately), you can tweet us @InterestingLit.

39 thoughts on “Twitter Terms and Literature”

  1. As ever, another fascinating post! Thanks. Though I DON’T tweet (other than trying to attract the attention of little birds (unsuccessfully) to come to the bird table) or face thing – the blog is as near as i go to a social network!

  2. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Another fascinating post from Interesting Literature. If you’ve been enjoying these reblogs, then please consider following Interesting Literature so you don’t miss a single post!

  3. Love this and very much appreciate your mention of the poem by “The Lark Ascending,” being Ralph Vaughn Williams’ inspiration for the composition of his beautiful piece of music of the same name! I never knew this! Thank you so much for your very informative blog.

  4. It’s fun to trace how the colloqialisms and language purely for writing ooze into what we consider literary. For instance, the word “maths” used to be a short form of “mathematics” no-one used in spoken language, and now it’s the norm. Although I should mention that people talking in twitter slang in the future seem a little upsetting for me, but also a nice idea of what technical progress in language looks like.

  5. ‘Tweet’ and ‘tweeter’ (verb meaning to tweet) are both officially in the French dictionary (since 2010). The French are slower on the uptake to modify their language with new lingo but it is very important in this country to have an officially approved version for the academic world. They don’t like using English words but in social media, there’s often no proper translation into French. Great post – merci!


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