By Anatoly Liberman
I resolved to toss a glance at a handful of tw-text when composing my previous article on the origin of dance. In descriptions of grinding and the Harlem Shake, twerk takes place with fantastic regularity. The verb suggests “to move one’s buttocks in a suggestive way.” It has not still produced its way into OED and possibly under no circumstances will (enable us hope so), but its origin hardly poses a challenge: twerk ought to be a mix of twist (or twitch) and get the job done (or jerk), a close relative of these kinds of verbs as squirm (maybe a blend of dialectal squir “to toss with a jerk” and worm) and twirl (? twist + whirl). When blends are coined “in basic sight” — as happened to brunch, motel, and Eurasia — no one has queries about their descent. Today, blending has grow to be a tiresome customized, and the stodgy solutions of grafting just one term on another are usually as transparent as Texaco or Amtrak and equally inspiring. But no one particular can demonstrate that twirl is certainly a sum of twist and whirl. Its origin will without end stay “unknown.” Be that as it may perhaps, twerk does search like a mix, even however we really don’t know who, where, and when introduced it into the linguistic area of North The united states.
Most people today perception an aspect of sound symbolism in words and phrases like twerk, even irrespective of its rhyming partners jerk, quirk, and shirk. By the way, dictionaries notify us that quirk is also of unknown origin and that jerk is a symbolic development. Shirk is obscure and, according to some authorities, may perhaps have experienced the influence of German Schurke “scoundrel rogue.” I have average have faith in in the shirk–Schurke connection. Original j– is this sort of a prevalent expressive substitute for sh– that I wonder whether jerk is a doublet of shirk or vice versa. In English, tw– indicates something fidgety and inconsequential: compare, in addition to the words and phrases cited over, tweak, twitter ~ Twitter, tweet, tweedle ~ twiddle ~ twizzle. As with blends, seem symbolism are unable to be “proved.” Some speakers hear derogatory or humorous overtones in tw-, though other folks do not, in particular because, for example, tweed and twill are properly respectable. It would be much too much to be expecting that some mixture of seems would come about only in semantically related words and phrases. I when described the symbolic (probably onomatopoeic, scary) character of English gr- (grim, grind, growl, grueling, and so forth) and had to defend my unoriginal strategy from the existence of grace, the gentlest word a person can imagine.
Considered from this viewpoint, the historical past of twerp also provides some interest. Two of its rhyming partners (slurp and burp) are even significantly less desirable than all those of twerk. (Chirp is not way too dignified both the Latinism stirp is bookish and occurs seldom.) No citations of twerp in OED predate 1923. Two of the citations (equally published a long time soon after the phrase was in use) trace it to a mix of a presented and a loved ones name (T.W. Earp). This speculation is not unbelievable (look at namby-pamby “lackadaisical”, based mostly on Ambrose Philips, or dunce, amongst hundreds of “words from names”) but probably a minor too good to be correct. Probably twerp ~ twirp “midget idiot an obnoxious person” experienced some currency at Oxford quickly soon after the Very first Entire world War, and the title T. W. Earp (a actual particular person and an Oxonian) gave increase to a witticism no a single could resist. The phrase gained common currency as minimal slang soon soon after its initially attestation. This point also speaks from the jocular origin of twerp among a coterie of university friends.
Regretably, two “serious” etymologies of twerp do not carry conviction. According to a single, twerp owes its origin to Danish tvær “running all the way across, diagonal.” This etymology was turned down as quickly as it was instructed and for fantastic motive. How could a twentieth-century English slang word (a noun) be a phonetic alteration of a Modern-day Danish adjective? According to another guess, twerp is a doublet of dwarf. The senses correspond beautifully, but the route from dwarf to twerp are not able to be reconstructed. Dwarf, despite the fact that missing cognates in the relaxation of Indo-European, has existed in the Germanic languages eternally, as evidenced by Old Engl. dweorg ~ dweorh, Aged Icelandic dvergr, Center High German getwerk, plural Present day German Zwerg, and other related forms. Twerp could not be a borrowing that is, it could not come from an outdoors resource (this sort of a source does not exist reference to Danish is a terrible joke, and, incidentally, the exact phrase exists in Swedish and Norwegian), and no system recognized to English historic phonetics would have improved dwarf to twerp. A putting coincidence, an ingenious conjecture, but an unacceptable etymology.
It should not occur as a shock that the modern day verb twerk has a variant twerp: these kinds of coinages usually have “inconsequential” variants. Nevertheless, the most frequent English terms beginning with tw– are of training course these akin to the numeral two. In Fashionable English, only the spelling reminds us that hundreds of years ago two was pronounced with tw-. (Despite my constant aversion to etymological spelling, I would perhaps retain w in two, to preserve it affinity with twelve, 20, twin, twilight, twine, twice, and twain ~ Twain.) Twist belongs here as well. The noun designates a rope made of two threads, a twirl, and refers to different distortions. As a result the verb twist “to intertwine curve wring.” Primarily characteristic are the Germanic congeners of twist: German Zwist ~ Very low German twist “quarrel, discord” Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish also have tvist (the exact indicating). Twig “a little shoot of a tree” appears to be akin to some words and phrases for “fork.” If this is real, then a twig the moment denoted a forked branch, an item with two prongs. How it acquired its modern day that means continues to be unclear. German Zweig does not conjure up a image of a little branch, however it is more compact than an Ast “bough.” (Did Dickens trace to the vicissitudes in the destiny of his hero when he known as him Twist? Soon after all, it was he, alternatively than Mr. Bumble, who invented the identify.)
It is anybody’s guess regardless of whether the strategy of staying divided into two sections affected the semantic progress of twirl, twitch, and the relaxation. Such ties can rarely be reconstructed with self-confidence. Some tw-words have nothing to do with individuals becoming talked about here. Among them are twill and tweed (described over), the other twig (“to understand”) customarily derived from Irish, and twit (“find fault with”) from Old Engl. æt-witan (examine æ like a in Engl. at), which dropped its prefix and currently seems like a simplex. Look at mend from amend. (James A. H. Murray of OED fame coined the time period aphetic for these types of phrases.) Tweezers has a relatively complicated heritage. Twee– in it is an aphetic type of French étuis “case,” but I speculate regardless of whether the reality that medical professionals utilized to carry a pair of ’twees, with twee so conveniently resembling two, performed a part in the word’s advancement. On the other hand, a in depth dialogue of this kind of nuances would get us way too significantly afield. In this article, we, merry twerkers, have been predominantly fascinated in items not likely outside of the knowledge of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Anatoly Liberman is the creator of Phrase Origins…And How We Know Them as perfectly as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, every single Wednesday. Send your etymology dilemma to him care of [email protected] he’ll do his most effective to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
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Image credit: Poster depicting Snow White with the prince surrounded by the 7 Dwarfs by Aida McKenzie. New York Metropolis W.P.A. Art Venture, [between 1936 and 1941]. Public area by way of Library of Congress.