Too many tweets

David Cameron, leader of the British Conservative party, has gotten into some hot, or at least luke-warm, water over a comment he made on live radio on July 29 — on Christian O’Connor’s breakfast show on Absolute Radio, where O’Connor asked Cameron if he was on Twitter, and Cameron said no, adding (in one rendering):

The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it — I think that too many tweets might make a twat.

Other reports have “too many twits”. You can hear the exchange for yourself in this YouTube clip, where the tw–ts word is transcribed as “tweets”, though it certainly sounds like “twits” — but “twits” really doesn’t make sense in this context (unless Cameron believes that the messages you send on Twitter are actually called twits rather than tweets). (There are, incidentally, plenty of sites on which heavy Twitter users are called twits.)

One other side point of linguistic interest: Cameron has twat with the vowel [æ]. OED2 has twat with [ɒ] (corresponding to General American [a]), and both pronunciations are amply attested (though with a distribution that I know nothing about; I suspect that no one has studied the variants systematically).

But what has mostly exercised people in the media and on web sites is the level of offensiveness of the word twat. British speakers generally find it less offensive than American speakers do; it counts as an obscenity for some purposes (broadcasting, in particular) in the U.S. but not in the U.K. (where it is merely “rude” or “crude” — as OED2 puts it, it is “low slang” for reference to the vulva, “a term of vulgar abuse” for reference to people), and it also seems to be considerably less frequent in the U.S. than in the U.K. (to the point where some Americans say they have hardly ever heard it).

But it is scarcely unknown in the U.S.: OED2 has cites from E. E. Cummings, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer for the vulva sense and from Philip Roth and John Updike for the personal put-down.

The question for British speakers about Cameron’s public use of the word seems to be whether it was just colloquial speech (coarse, but not particularly remarkable in someone of Cameron’s age) or whether it crossed some line of appropriateness in a public figure. (A few commenters have suggested that Cameron’s use might have been intended to bolster his common-man credentials, softening his upper-class background and elite education.)

In the end, one of those cases where opinions will differ.

(Hat tip to Chris Waigl.)

4 Responses to “Too many tweets”

  1. Alan Palmer Says:

    I’ve have heard that many people (here in the UK, at least) think of ‘twat’ as a slightly rude term of abuse only. They don’t, or didn’t until the fuss about Cameron’s use happened, think of it as particularly offensive, and are likely to be unaware of the other meaning, vulva.

    I suspect tham Cameron himself may have been one of these people. Whether it’s his sheltered upbringing as a public-school (ie private school) boy I leave for others to decide.

  2. dw Says:

    Robert Browning evidently had the [æ] pronunciation:

    Then owls and bats
    Cowls and twats
    Monks and nuns in a cloister’s moods
    Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry

    Although he didn’t know what it meant, so maybe his views shouldn’t carry much weight.

    For what it’s worth, I grew up in the UK, and only ever heard “twat” rhyme with “cat”, where it was a mild term of abuse, roughly comparable with “wanker”. I didn’t even know the physiological meaning until recently.

  3. Chris Waigl Says:

    The BBC News article Is the T-word offensive? (which takes pains to employ twat only in quotes, and otherwise indeed uses “the T-word” as a substitute), has quite a bit of similar background, including some bits from a Collins English Dictionary editor.

    The comments reprinted below the article point to a possible North/South split on the offensiveness of twat, with Northerners being more likely to see it as only slightly below cunt.

    This matches my own experience — I was very surprised to find it used so widely in London, and being perceived as only very mildly offensive, but two of my friends from Northern England are on a bit of a crusade explaining the genitals-reference to twat-users.

  4. mollymooly Says:

    I wonder if anyone has [twæt] for “fool” contrasted with [twɒt] for “vulva”.

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