Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

August 2009

A Hasty ReTweet
During a recent appearance on a radio show, the leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron stated that he did not have a Twitter account. His reasoning was that "Too many twits make a twat." The subsequent press coverage made much of the use of the word "twat" on national radio*, but very little attention was paid to the use of "twits". The more accepted usage (putting value judgments to one side) would have been "Too many tweets make a twat".

For those joining us from the Steam Age, Twitter is an online microblogging service that allows users to send and receive messages up to 140 characters in length. These messages are posted in a similar fashion to online bulletin boards or status updates on social networking sites. Microblogging is still a nascent technology, and there are many similar sites (such as Posterous or Tumblr), but Twitter has garnered most of the media coverage and in doing so has popularised its own vocabulary. A posted message is known as a tweet, and a message using all of the maximum 140 characters as a twoosh. Tweet may also be used as a verb to describe the act of posting. Those permitted to view a user's messages are followers, and one may follow another in order to view their updates, or unfollow them to cease doing so. And reposting a message to bring it to the attention of other followers is known as retweeting (abbreviated to RT). Trending topics are issues discussed by users, and are marked for discussion by the use of the hash symbol (thus are they hashtagged).

This technology-specific lexical subset is, of course, very similar to the wave of neologisms and usage changes that followed in the wake of social networking's explosion in popularity, when friend began to be used as a transitive verb (as did Facebooking). As exclusive or even baffling as it may seem to newcomers, Twitter's jargon has spread with wild popularity into the world at large, and Twitter-related words are being identified more and more by our corpus technology through their use in the media. Some portmanteau examples include Twitterverse and Twitterati (referring respectively to the world of Twitter and its users) and Twitterversy (coined in relation to a US Senator's revealing his top-secret whereabouts in a tweet). More recently, especially since the service played a key role in providing the most up-to-date information on the political demonstrations in Iran as they happened, the use of Twibbons has become widespread. A Twibbon is a simple alteration to a user's avatar in order to reflect support for a political or charitable cause (in the case of the Iranian demonstrations, supporters applied a green tinge). And the pastime known as twitchhiking means arranging to travel by prevailing upon one's followers.

Microblogging is a boon for the English language. New forms of social media become successful because they make communication either more efficient or more fun. Plus they prove to be rich resources for new words and stimulate public debate. This particular medium is ideally suited for crowdsourcing (making mass appeals for ideas) and for raising awareness of political issues. And that's not all: novels and operas are being composed using microblogging. Really.

*Is it a swear word? Yes. Yes, it is.

Duncan Black - Editor